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Setting the Record Straight on Climate Change and Arson in Australia’s Bushfires


Quick Take

Various claims online suggest that climate change hasn’t contributed to the bushfires ravaging the East Coast of Australia, pinning the blame instead on arson. Those claims distort the facts.


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Several recent reports have found that climate change is contributing to the hot, dry conditions that fuel the kind of fires currently raging up the East Coast of Australia. But claims that climate change played no role in those bushfires have been proliferating online.

This map from Geoscience Australia shows the hot spots across Australia on Jan. 14, 2020.

For example, a video from the conservative content generator PragerU has been viewed 2 million times since it was posted on Jan. 7. The text in the video claims: “The popular narrative is that Australia’s fires are caused by climate change. But the facts say otherwise… Since November 8, 2019, nearly 200 arsonists have been arrested for starting brush fires in Australia. The arsonists were responsible for about 50% of the bushfires. Not climate change. Arsonists. Repeat that: Not climate change. Arsonists. But the left doesn’t care, because this fact doesn’t agree with their ‘science.'”

Here’s what the video gets wrong: First of all, “nearly 200 arsonists” haven’t been arrested since Nov. 8, 2019.

As its source, the video cites a Jan. 7 story from Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper the Australian with the headline: “Bushfires: Firebugs fuelling crisis as arson arrest toll hits 183.”

The story said that “police arrested 183 people for lighting bushfires across Queensland, NSW, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania in the past few months.” But that total of 183 arson arrests occurred over various periods in 2019, including all of 2019 in the case of Victoria.

The story also referenced statistics since Nov. 8, 2019, from only one state — New South Wales. Police there announced that they had taken “legal action” against 183 people for bushfire-related offenses. Only 24 of those people were charged for “alleged deliberately-lit bushfires,” according to the police; others were cautioned or charged with different offenses.

So, the video used the date from the New South Wales announcement and the number of arson arrests counted over five states and various periods in 2019 from the newspaper story. The effect is an inflated number of arrests since the bushfires began.

The larger point in the video, though, is that arson is primarily responsible for the bushfires in Australia, not climate change. That message has been distilled into online memes. It also has been trumpeted by some high-profile political figures, including Donald Trump Jr.

But overemphasizing the role of arson and pitting it against climate change distorts the issue.

The fact is, hot, dry conditions allow for bushfires to escalate, regardless of how they are started. As we explained in 2017, in a story about wildfires in the western U.S., climate change doesn’t cause these fires, but it can exacerbate the hot and dry conditions that make wildfires more likely to develop and grow.

Generally, about half of all bushfires are started by natural causes (mostly from lightning), according to Geoscience Australia, a government agency that deals with geology and geography. The other half are caused by people, who start them either accidentally or deliberately. Those that are started deliberately aren’t necessarily malicious, according to the agency. They could be fires that were meant to be contained, but got out of control.

The video’s claim that half of the current fires are due to arson is also wrong.

That figure appears to be based on another part of the story in the Australian, which said “about 50 per cent of bushfires were lit by firebugs and impending fire seasons excited them.” It attributed that statement to James Ogloff, a professor of forensic behavioral science.

We reached out to Ogloff and asked for the source of that figure. He said it came from a 2008 Australian Institute of Criminology report. But that report, more than a decade old, analyzed only fires that were assigned a cause — 13% of those fires were deliberate and 37% were suspicious. It doesn’t account for at least 40% of all fires that weren’t assigned a cause.

So we asked Colleen Bryant, the researcher who wrote that 2008 report, if her findings could support the claim that 50% of the current fires are attributable to arson. The short answer is, no. But she also provided to us a 14-page explanation of the current circumstances, which can be read here.

The original report is neither a study of bushfires nor arson, she explained. Rather, it is an examination of deliberately lit vegetation fires.

Vegetation fire is a broad category that covers any fire occurring in vegetation, whereas a bushfire is larger, akin to a wildfire. There are many more vegetation fires than bushfires.

And deliberately lit fires aren’t necessarily arson. They, too, are a broad category that can include arson, but also include suspicious, nuisance and other types of fire ignitions, where the cause of the fire is not conclusive.

The original report is based largely on data kept over a four- to five-year period in the late 1990s and early 2000s by various state agencies, but not all fires are recorded. Some of the largest bushfires in northern Australia’s wilderness are not attended, so they wouldn’t be part of that data, for example.

Based on her analysis of the available fire statistics, Bryant concluded that most of those very large bushfires have a natural origin, and they account for the “overwhelming majority” of all land burned.

Ultimately, she wrote in response to us:

Colleen Bryant, Jan. 15, 2020: Bryant (2008a) did conclude that as much as 50 percent of vegetation fires in Australia may be deliberately lit. However, that statistic is not, and should not be used as, an assessment of the likely causes (ignition) of Australia’s 2019‐2020 bushfires, as it is not an accurate reporting of what has occurred, and it is unlikely representative of the actual picture.

For a rough idea of how much deliberate torching has contributed to the current fires, we reached out to the four states or territories ablaze on Australia’s East Coast and got information on the number of fires and the number of arrests from one. In Queensland, there have been 1,068 reported bushfires between Sept. 10, 2019, and Jan. 8, 2020, according to the Queensland Police Service. Of those, 114 were “deliberately or maliciously lit,” and 109 people have been cautioned, charged or sent to a restorative justice program, according to police. That would account for about 11% of the fires.

A spokesman for the Queensland Fire and Emergency Services echoed the Geoscience Australia analysis of bushfire causes. “There’s a real mix,” he said in an interview with FactCheck.org, breaking that mix into three categories — natural causes, accidental human causes (cigarettes and sources as small as a spark from rusty breaks), and intentional human causes. Natural causes account for the bulk of the fires, he said.

This diagram from the Australian Bureau of Meteorology shows how pyrocumulonimbus clouds develop. Published with permission.

And, as we noted at the start, several reports have found that climate change is contributing to the conditions that generate large-scale bushfires. The “State of the Climate” report for 2018 released by the Australian Bureau of Meteorology said:Climate change can have a significant influence on the frequency, magnitude and impact of some types of compound events,” giving as an example warming and drying trends in Tasmania in 2015-2016, causing “record high fire danger.”

The bureau’s “annual climate statement,” released on Jan. 9, reported that 2019 was the hottest and driest year on record for the country. It said:

Australian Bureau of Meteorology: The second half of the year was particularly dry across most of the southern half of Australia, and followed several years of below average rainfall over parts of Queensland and New South Wales. Warm and windy conditions during spring to early summer led to repeated periods of severe fire weather, with very large bushfires affecting eastern Australia from September, with many fires continuing to burn after the end of the year.

Those hot, dry conditions have allowed for one of the most severe fire seasons on Australia’s East Coast in decades, according to NASA’s Earth Observatory. The fires have been so severe that they have created pyrocumulonimbus, or fire clouds, that can ignite new fires with lightning strikes. In 2018, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology predicted that “conditions associated with pyrocumulonimbus cloud formation” could become more prevalent in southeast Australia, which is where many of the current fires are located.

“The reality is that the fires are larger, hotter, and burning longer than ever before,” said Jennifer Marlon, a research scientist at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, in an interview. She likened the severity of the current fires in Australia to the recent wildfires in the western U.S.

“There are fingerprints of climate change in all of these blazes that really can’t be denied,” Marlon said.

Editor’s note: FactCheck.org is one of several organizations working with Facebook to debunk misinformation shared on social media. Our previous stories can be found here.

Sources

Bryant, Colleen. “Causes of bushfire is Australia – A response.” 15 Jan 2020.

Bureau of Meteorology, Australian Government. State of the Climate 2018. Accessed 9 Jan 2020.

Bureau of Meteorology, Australian Government. Annual climate statement 2019. 9 Jan 2020.

Ross, David and Imogen Reid. “Bushfires: Firebugs fuelling crisis as national arson arrest toll hits 183.” The Australian. 8 Jan 2020.

Geoscience Australia. Bushfire. Accessed 9 Jan 2020.

Queensland bushfires, investigation update.” Queensland Police Service. 10 Jan 2020.

Police take legal action against more than 180 people so far during 2019/2020 bushfire season.” New South Wales Police Force. 6 Jan 2020.

Ogloff, James. Professor, Swinburne University of Technology. Email interview with FactCheck.org. 10 Jan 2020.

Marlon, Jennifer. Research Scientist, Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. Phone interview with FactCheck.org. 13 Jan 2020.