Congratulations, Victoria!

lightning

Victoria is officially the safest state in Australia if you’re looking to escape the firebugs:

Victoria Police say the fires engulfing the eastern part of Victoria are not being treated as the work of arsonists, as claimed by a widespread social media campaign.

In the past week, a Twitter hashtag #ArsonEmergency – mimicking the popular #BushfireEmergency hashtag – attracted thousands of tweets linking the fires to arsonists and casting doubt on the role of climate change in exacerbating the bushfires’ severity.

But authorities have moved to dispel those claims.

“Police are aware of a number of posts circulating in relation to the current bushfire situation, however currently there is no intelligence to indicate that the fires in East Gippsland and north-east Victoria have been caused by arson or any other suspicious behaviour,” a police spokeswoman said.

The CFA incident controller in Bairnsdale, Brett Mitchell, backed up that statement on Thursday, saying that none of the recent fires in the East Gippsland area have been started by arson.

More than 1.2 million hectares have burnt across the state, with the dozens of fires raging in the East Gippsland and north-eastern regions largely caused by lightning strikes in November.

Lots of stormy weather over Victoria but one also presumes (non-criminal) accidents and human carelessness. Otherwise there really are a lot of storms.

By contrast, New South Wales, with over 5 million burnt hectares, has not been as lucky:

Since November, authorities in NSW have charged or cautioned 183 people for some 200 bushfire-related offences – malicious and otherwise.

Of those, 24 people have been charged with deliberately lighting bushfires.

Another 53 were charged or cautioned for failing to comply with a total fire ban and another 47 with discarding a lit cigarette.

Similarly for Queensland’s 2.5 million burnt hectares, some of which afflicted by humans:

On September 10 last year, Queensland Police established Taskforce Overcross to “prevent, disrupt and investigate all significant bushfires across Queensland”, a spokesperson told news.com.au.

To date, police action has been taken with respect to 101 people on 172 charges, including 32 adults and 69 juveniles, who have been dealt with for “offences relating to recklessly and/or deliberately setting fires”.

“The type of offences detected statewide include unauthorised lighting of fires, contravening local fire bans, and endangering property under the Criminal Code.”

Victorians are the most law abiding Australians, though lightning seem to be a big hazard. Victoria is also the state where, unlike in other parts of Australia, there are no ethnic crime gangs, only “collective group of individuals who know each other,” according to the Victorian police, who don’t get arrested for hurling rocks at police cars and smashing windscreens on the account of “a short term tactical decision.” In any case, it was probably lightning, not rocks.

As ecological criminologist Paul Reed wrote late last year,

A 2015 satellite analysis of 113,000 fires from 1997-2009 confirmed what we had known for some time – 40 per cent of fires are deliberately lit, another 47 per cent accidental. This generally matches previous data published a decade earlier that about half of all fires were suspected or deliberate arson, and 37 per cent accidental. Combined, they reach the same conclusion: 87 per cent are man-made…

Other recent relevant research points to the real culprits:

Research conducted by a team including Tobias Keller – a postdoctoral fellow at the Digital Media Research Centre at Queensland University of Technology – shows an effort by potential troll and bot accounts to promote the theory that the bushfires across the eastern seaboard were started by arsonists.

Almost 1500 tweets using the #ArsonEmergency hashtag were examined, published by more than 300 accounts.

“We found highly suspicious activity from the accounts,” said Mr Keller, who said many of the accounts also disseminated US news stories published by alternative media outlets.

Using a Twitter bot detection tool, the university research team detected bot-like characteristics from many of the accounts.

Mr Keller said the content was “co-ordinated, inauthentic behaviour” that aimed to “move the narrative away from linking climate change to bushfires and towards the crisis being the fault of arson.”

As a well-known bot and a troll, allow me to say the impact of climatic conditions and the human role in the crisis are not mutually exclusive, and to point out the relevant research on how bush fires start (which indeed seems to be currently supported by police records) is merely to state the facts. How the fires start has little to do with their ultimate extent and severity, but if we are to better tackle similar crises in the future we need to be aware of all the relevant factors from the first spark to when the ash cools down.

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