Expert’s take on a burning question

Dr Jaimie Zander.
Dr Jaimie Zander.

Why do people deliberately light bush fires?

Arson plagues Western Australia every summer and last summer was no exception, with local bushland becoming a dangerously dry tinderbox, creating the perfect temptation for a firebug.

According to the State Government, deliberately lit fires cost Australian taxpayers $1.6 billion a year and last fire season 1600 blazes were deemed deliberately lit.

The common perception that arsonists are mentally ill offenders who ‘get off’ by lighting fires is wrong, according to a Murdoch University criminology expert.

Murdoch’s Rockingham campus School of Law senior lecturer Jaimie Zander told the Courier there were misconceptions about fire bugs.

‘The motives for arson are actually very diverse and each individual case needs to be examined,’ she said.

‘The psychodynamic perspective of arson has really done a disservice to our understanding of arson offenders, and has instilled this perception in the general public of a mentally ill offender.’

Dr Zander said often arsonists were portrayed as getting sexual gratification from fire lighting.

‘While this may be true for a small portion of offenders, the majority of arsonists appear to be general offenders,’ she said.

‘That is, they engage in a range of anti-social and criminal acts.’

But Dr Zander said there were differences between offenders who lit fires and those who did not.

‘Juvenile arsonists are more likely to display higher levels of aggression and engage in more intense antisocial acts than delinquents who don’t set fires, but they are also more likely to be suffering from depression, have impulse control problems and engage in substance abuse,’ she said.

Dr Zander said it was unfair for the public to have a mentality of blaming the parents of offenders.

‘As a society we need to support families more and the current climate is simply leading to greater economic marginalisation rather than closing the gaps between those who have and those who do not,’ she said.

DFES runs a free and education and support program for people aged six to 16 who have been involved in fire lighting. Call 9395 9488 or jaffa@dfes.wa.gov.au.