During the recent Australian bushfire crisis there has been significant misinformation in the media about how acts of arson have contributed to the disaster. In psychology, when we look at fires set by people for reasons of profit, excitement, and/or revenge, we are referring to malicious deliberate firesetting, rather than the legal term arson.
The psychology behind intentional malicious firesetting is complex and still not fully understood. Despite sporadic funding and fluctuating interest from relevant agencies, however, practitioners have made steady progress towards developing a reliable and valid model to understand and treat malicious firesetting behaviour.
Importantly, we have learned the following:
1. Some arsonsists are triggered in their subsequent firesetting by a copycat effect, so we need to provide the media and summer campaigns with clear guidelines to help inform the coverage of fire incidents.
2. Malicious firesetters can be treated. Working to address the driving forces behind the behaviour has been shown to reduce risk of subsequent firesetting.
3. Information from the public is important for authorities in addressing firesetting risk but we need to encourage stronger recognition and reporting of suspicious activity in our communities. Public awareness campaigns built on understanding the motivations and triggers would contribute to fire prevention efforts.
4. The root causes of malicious firesetting are varied. Juvenile firesetting is motivated and committed differently from adult firesetting; males and females set fires differently; fires set by firefighters, while thankfully quite rare, are different again. A diversified, tailored intervention and treatment program is best.
5. Referring to malicious firesetters as ‘firebugs’ or other diminutive terms can minimise the very real material and personal impact these individuals have on our community. Using the appropriate language helps policy makers and funders keep this extremely serious threat front of mind.
We need to know more about why people light fires and why they continue to do so, even after having been caught and sanctioned. In working towards understanding and prevention, we need:
- treatment programs that can be effectively and efficiently delivered within existing correctional structures;
- community-based interventions for people on parole to access;
- early interventions in the community for the undetected firesetters to address their behaviour and mitigate future risk; and
- guidelines for media and summer campaigns that tap into the community spirit that sustains us all during disasters such as Australians are experiencing currently.
What we don’t need is to re-invent the wheel regarding fire disasters in Australia. Royal Commissions or unwieldy government initiatives won’t necessarily help to progress this issue.