Australian bush fires: what turns a child into a ‘firebug’?

This week’s arrests suggest that better education on fire hazards for schoolchildren should be part of any future bush-fire prevention plan


It isn’t the statistics about the scale of the damage done by the inferno sweeping New South Wales – the fires, at the time of writing, have a total perimeter of 1,600km and have burnt through 120,000 hectares – that really brings home its magnitude.

It isn’t the number of houses destroyed, or even the daily tally of fires burning in the state – 93 one day, 62 the next. It isn’t the news reports warning that, by today, when conditions are expected to reach their worst, the fires could have spread to the densely populated suburbs of western Sydney.

Rather, it is the little things. It is the image of a collection of mismatched mugs sitting on a letterbox amid the debris of what was once somebody’s dream home. It is the dark, acrid pyrocumulus, or fire cloud, that settled over most of Sydney last Thursday. It is the sight of the Sydney Opera House bathed in evening sunshine, the sky behind it almost completely black.

It is wiping black dust out of the bathroom sink in our Northern Beaches suburb – some 80km from the nearest fire – and then realising that it is the debris of someone’s life. It is my children coming home from school smelling of smoke and other people’s loss.

Nothing to be smug about
We arrived in Sydney at the beginning of August in the middle of, as I kept telling everyone at home, the hottest winter in 150 years. September was one of the warmest spring months on record. We’re feeling less smug about it now. On Monday, the United Nations warned that there is “absolutely” a link between climate change and the bush fires raging across the state.

But whatever the climatic conditions that allowed these fires to spread at such speed and force, they weren’t an act of nature. They weren’t even an act of man. They were, it now seems, the acts of children.

On Monday evening, Shane Fitzsimmons, commissioner of the New South Wales rural fire service revealed that five people had been arrested in connection with the fires – all of them children. The oldest is 15, the youngest 11.

Two of them are girls, aged 12 and 13, who are charged with starting a grass fire at Bonnyrigg in Sydney’s west. An 11-year-old boy spent Monday night in custody, after he was arrested for starting two fires, one of which burnt through more than 5,000 hectares of bushland, shut down Newcastle Airport, and closed the Pacific Highway last week.

The accused children were lucky to escape with their lives, Fitzsimmons said. “They may not lose their lives, but they may now lose their futures,” he added.

The firebug phenomenon
Juvenile arsonists – or firebugs, as they’re called here – are not a new phenomenon in Australia.

In the three years from June 2008 to July 2011, firefighters in New South Wales attended an average of five fires a day started by adolescent arsonists. Over the six months to the end of March this year, 55 of the 87 people charged with bush fire-related offences were children.

Already attention is turning to the question of what turns a child into an arsonist. Are they likely to be victims of abuse, as I heard emeritus professor Freda Briggs from the University of South Australia suggest on radio this week? Is it the fault of “working mothers” failing to supervise their children, as one representative of the fire service speculated in 2011? (No, he didn’t give his thoughts on the role of “working fathers”.) Is it a sign of a neurological disorder, or is it just curiosity?

A 1998 report into juvenile arsonists by the US Department of Homeland Security found that, along with a dysfunctional family background, lapses in adult supervision, and a high degree of risk- taking, one of the factors common to these young arsonists is a poor understanding of fire.

New South Wales is still blazing, but the debate across Australia has already moved on – including to the question of whether the prime minister, Tony Abbott, can now go ahead with moves to scrap the carbon tax, and whether he will restore funding for climate-change research. In the shorter term, this week’s arrests suggest that better education on fire hazards for schoolchildren should be part of any future bush-fire prevention plan.

Here in New South Wales, however, all attention is focused on getting through the next critical 24 hours.

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