Who Starts The Fires?


One of the perennial responses to bushfires is a post-conflagration outburst of praise from politicians, community leaders and media for the generous, brave, dedicated firefighters who have laid their lives on the line. This is not to suggest that much of this praise is not deserved. But an unfortunate side effect is that adulation of this sort is highly attractive to the histrionic personality, the attention-seeker who craves recognition. What better way to become a hero than to light the fire secretly, then "discover" and report it, then join the firefighters in the rescue?

This is precisely what Peter Cameron Burgess did.

Aged 20 and unemployed, with a record for house-breaking, he heard the praise heaped on firefighters so he decided to get in on the act. He had already made several attempts to join the NSW Fire Brigade, but had been rejected because of lack of qualifications. He joined the Rural Fire Service (RFS) hoping to use that as a path to the fire brigade, but he was always a problematic member. Others started to suspect him when he was always the first on the scene of an outbreak which he himself reported. His fire-lighting career had begun in bush near the Hume Weir outside Albury. There was a break in his fire-lighting until he saw the praise heaped on New York firefighters during the 9/11 terrorist attacks. By this stage he was on the NSW Central Coast, and once again lighting, then reporting fires.

He moved to the Blue Mountains, joined the Glenbrook-Lapstone RFS and the same pattern occurred there. He was always the one to report a fire and then be on the spot in full uniform when the rest of his firefighting team arrived. Police were informed and Strike Force Tronto, the then NWS Police arson investigation unit, began monitoring Burgess. In order to get sufficient evidence to charge him, police worked with members of his RFS to track his movements around NSW. It is not unusual for arsonists to move around, although some prefer to stay in their own region. What was typical was the escalation in fire-lighting. Just before his arrest Burgess was lighting fires on an almost daily basis, and reporting them on his mobile phone.

He was eventually sentenced in Penrith Magistrates Court to two years jail after being charged with 25 arson offences. He pleaded guilty to lighting 16 fires. Attorney-General Bob Debus was angry with the light sentence. Burgess should have been tried in the district court, where he could have received a sentence of up to 10 years. He showed no sign of mental illness, and was fully cognisant of what he was doing. He said he was sometimes bored and fighting fires gave him a sense of achievement.

Burgess is a specific type of arsonist: his fire-lighting was the product of histrionic motives. He provoked a crisis in order to participate in its resolution. Arsonists such as Burgess tend to join volunteer units in order to participate in the excitement of fighting the fire and receiving the kudos accorded to the generous people who serve the community in the RFS.

Bushfire arson is a national problem. It costs the Australian community about $500 million each year. But accurate statistics are hard to establish because arson is very hard to prosecute. Furthermore, we don’t know how many arsonists — in the strict sense of people who light fires for malicious purposes — are actually out there. In other words, we still have a long way to go before we know what percentage of people are arsonists and understand their motivations.

So what do we know?

First, we know that there is a sharp increase in the number of fires, especially on urban-bush boundaries. Take the Blue Mountains, for example. This is one of the most fire-prone areas in the world with houses and towns sitting on the edge of steep escarpments, many of them westward facing, the direction of the prevailing winds. So fires are to be expected. The pattern used to be an outbreak about every six to seven years. But now locals expect fires much more often, sometimes every year. This increase has no natural explanation, except global warming. The only other conclusion to be drawn is that most are deliberately lit by arsonists. There are no national figures but in 1975 there were just over 1200 reports of arson; by 1995 there were almost 10,000. Some experts believe the police are lucky to catch one in 200 arsonists, and then only the stupid ones.

Second, the old-style rural pyromania is far from stamped out. There are still a lot of people who think that the bush needs to be "cleaned up" and burnt regularly. They argue that a good burn never did any harm to the landscape. They despise "Greenies" and environmentalists. They harbour resentment towards all ecological policies, the national parks, and any form of protection of public land, and see themselves as the true repositories of rural folk wisdom. Some will be attracted by volunteer firefighting. They are dismissive of the significance of fires that only burn the bush and do not affect property. As a result they often light fires without concern for the consequences. "After all", they reason, "who cares if a national park or some wilderness is burnt, as long as the fuel load is reduced and our assets protected?"

Some set fire to nearby bushland to destroy "pests" such as dingoes or native animals or birds. They hold the view that they are doing something worthwhile and are only breaking a penal law. All they will have to do is pay the fine if they get caught and prosecuted. And it is very hard to catch them. Some of them are powerful in their communities, and even if they can identify them, local police and fire authorities are often loath to prosecute them. Their behaviour is seen as little more than a quaint, minor breach of the law. Nevertheless, such people, no matter what their level of respectability or their claim that they are managing the land in a "traditional manner", are actually criminals and should be treated as such.

Third, there are anti-social, psychopathic arsonists like Burgess. He is typical in that he was a young, unemployed male. There are not many arsonists over 30 and very few are women. Researcher Talina Drabsch found that in 1989, 85 per cent of alleged offenders were male, 46 per cent were juveniles and 50 per cent were unemployed.

The proportion of juvenile and child arsonists is much higher than for other crimes and seems to be rising. Young children between five and 10 light fires out of curiosity, but "older fire setters usually set fires as a result of aggression, sensation seeking, social skills deficits, deviance, vandalism, covert anti-social behaviour and attention-seeking behaviour", says Drabsch. Such young people seem to come from dysfunctional families where parents are often absent or abusive.

However, despite attempts, it is difficult to profile juvenile arsonists. Fire-lighting might be a cry for help with physical or sexual abuse or neglect, it might be the manifestation of a young psychopath whose vandalism and lack of empathy for others is an early indication of their complete lack of conscience, it might indicate a child with cognitive difficulties or a lack of judgement, or a combination of any of these factors. Or it might be sheer bloody-mindedness.

There are other motives for arson. Some young men feel impotent and they light fires because it gives them a sense of power. Others are consumed with animosity and anger and fire-lighting gives expression to their rage. For some, fire is associated with a sexual satisfaction, or the sheer thrill of seeing a wall of flame. Others are simply vandals whose one aim is to destroy, to get a malignant thrill out of fire-lighting. For some the motive is the concealment of another crime, such as burning stolen cars in the bush.

With the exception of younger children, all adolescent and young adult males know what they are doing, plan their actions carefully, cover their tracks, and often use sophisticated means to light fires so they are well away from the area before a conflagration occurs. Serial arsonists clearly understand the possible consequences for others of the fires they light, including endangering lives, homes, and other assets. Common factors motivating all of them seem to be the power they gain from their anonymity and their ability to manipulate society, and the thrill that comes from not being caught. Another common thread seems to be psychopathic tendencies, the satisfaction of anti-social behaviour, and a lack of feeling for other people, let alone for animals and the bush itself.

Yet even with all this information, we still don’t know enough about these people. In fact, the most striking thing bushfire arsonists have in common is their malicious unconcern for others.

This is an edited extract from Paul Collins’ Burn: The Epic Story of Bushfire in Australia (Scribe: 2009).

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