Australian Firefighters Battle Brushfires and Serial Arsonists

Rena Golden | TWC
Published: January 22, 2013

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The sun sets as smoke rises near the town of Seaton on January 19, 2013 in Australia. Bushfires in Victoria have claimed one life and destroyed several houses as record heat continues to create extreme fire conditions throughout Australia.

As if firefighters in Australia don’t have enough to tackle with the dangerous brush fire season in full swing, fanned by high winds and soaring summer temperatures...

They also have to get into the warped minds of "firebugs" or serial arsonists who deliberately start many of the fires.

Every year, thousands of residents risk losing their lives and billions of dollars in property damage.

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Nationwide, the Australian Institute of Criminology estimates that of the 60 thousand wildfires in Australia yearly, 9 percent are deliberately set and about 20 percent considered suspicious.  

But other arson investigators say that’s a gross understatement. They contend that up to half of all brushfires are caused deliberately. It’s awfully difficult, they say, to track down arsonists in remote areas, let alone determine the exact source of ignition.

Authorities say only about 1 percent of "firebugs" are arrested and convicted.

Inside the Mind of a "Firebug"

Just who are these people who intentionally put lives in danger?

In an alarming number of cases, Australian fire officials suspect it could be the work of arsonists like Brendan Sokaluk, convicted of setting a major blaze in Victoria on the now infamous Black Saturday of February 2009.

Sokaluk was charged with intentionally setting a brushfire that killed 10 people, a crime punishable by up to 25 years in prison. His sentence: a total of 17 years.  

In a video-taped confession to police that was made available to the Herald Sun, Sokaluk, then 39, admitted to wrapping a burning cigarette ember in paper and throwing it out his car window into a eucalyptus plantation. He then fled the scene.

The former volunteer fireman insists it was all an accident and he never intended for people to die. His defense lawyer described her client as a simple man suffering from mild autism and incapable of making up an elaborate cover story.  

But others who knew him from the area described seeing him near the scene acting suspiciously, "aloof" and "weird." And they reported it was not the first time he was spotted close to where a fire started.

In the U.S., experts are effectively creating a psychological profile of "firebugs" based on the behavior patterns of notorious arsonists like Wade Kirkwood, who terrorized a rural community in Washington in 2004.

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"I felt like I needed to do something as destructive as I could," he told the U.K.’s The Telegraph. "Deep down, I didn’t want anyone to get hurt. But I took that chance when I set the fires, knowing somebody could get hurt or killed."

After eluding authorities for weeks, or perhaps years as some suspect, he finally confessed to setting 11 intentional fires and causing over $1 billion in property damage.  

Kirkwood proved to be a textbook example of a serial "firebug."

Most offenders are overwhelming male, white and under 40 years of age. They’ve had a fascination with fire since childhood and it’s not unusual for them to have volunteer or some other firefighting experience. They tend to be loners, low-achievers, with problems in both their personal and professional relationships. And unlike urban arsonists, they are motivated more by anger at society than insurance fraud or the desire for financial gain.

Catching a "Firebug"

Nabbing a "firebug" in the act has proven to be very hard for Australian law enforcement agencies. On rare occasions "firebugs" do leave behind important evidence as Sokaluk did with the lit cigarette. Others sometimes abandon gas cans, assuming the fire will destroy everything in its path. In some cases, fingerprints can be lifted.

With overwhelming odds stacked against investigators, Australian authorities rely primarily on the threat of tough punishments as well as prevention measures such as those code-named Operation Nomad in South Australia and Strike Force Vulcan in Western Australia.  

Under these two operations, and similar ones around the country, authorities use traffic cameras to monitor known or potential "firebugs" wherever they go and to warn them they are under surveillance. In South Australia alone, officials are tracking 230 known arsonists.

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Taking a cue from the U.S., Australia is starting to focus more attention on treatment for the serial arsonist rather than just arrest and prosecution.

While the situation is still alarming, some progress is reported.  

Still, arson investigators estimate they’ll be tracking twice the number of suspected "firebugs" in 2013 than in 2012 before the end of brushfire season in April.

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