CANBERRA, Feb 11 (Reuters) – The arsonist Australian police suspect lit one of the weekend’s deadly wildfires is likely to be a young male who could be driven by the need for excitement, recognition or to be in control, analysts said on Wednesday.
He may well be a loner and come from a poorer background, and is likely to have a record of violence. Crime statistics show he will also be hard to catch and convict.
“Lighting a fire fulfils some psychological need for them,” said bushfire crime analyst Damon Muller, from the Australian Institute of Criminology.
The worst bushfire disaster in Australian history has killed at least 181 people in the southern Victoria state, destroying small towns and leaving 5,000 people homeless. [ID:nSP409302] Up to half of the bushfires in Australia each year are started deliberately, with a cost to the community of about A$1.6 billion ($1 billion) a year, research by Australia’s Institute of Criminology has found.
Many firebugs come from the area where the fire is set, said University of South Australia psychologist Robert Heath, with some even joining efforts to douse the flames.
“Some suffer from a feeling of impotence and light fires to give themselves a sense of being in control,” Heath said.
“Another group has a psychological attraction to fire and seeing things burn. The third group has a need to be seen as a hero and so tends to light fires to provide opportunities to show heroic traits.”
There are also many women arsonists, who were an average 3 to 4 years older than the male arsonists, according to statistics of those caught and convicted of the crime.
Australia has tough penalties for lighting bushfires, with arsonists facing up to 25 years in prison under laws that treat deadly arson incidents in the same category as murder, although laws differ from state to state.
The latest fires have prompted a new debate, with the national government considering national laws to help deter arson.
But tough prison sentences are only effective when the arsonist is caught and convicted. Figures published in 2008 found between 20,000 and 30,000 fires are deliberately lit in Australia each year.
Authorities are skilled at tracking a fire back to where it started, and at ruling out natural causes such as lightning strikes.
But catching the firebug is difficult unless there are witnesses, Muller said, while proving the person intended to cause damage, or death, is even more difficult.
Latest figures from the Victoria state, from the year to June 2006, found police laid 2,926 arson charges in the year, but only 39 people were sentenced by the courts. The most common sentence was one year in jail.
“One of the problems we have is a lot of arsonists are not identified, are not caught and are not prosecuted,” Muller said. “It is very difficult to tie a particular person to a particular fire.
“The big fires we’ve seen in Victoria are often a combination of a number of fires that have joined together. So proving the contribution of any individual, even if we know they have lit a fire, to the eventual damage is legally quite challenging.” ($1=A$1.52) (Editing by Alex Richardson)