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The viral false claim that nearly 200 arsonists are behind the Australia fires, explained

Only a handful of fires were deliberately ignited. But that didn’t stop people from spreading misinformation.

Burnt property is seen in Clifton Creek on January 9, 2020, in Bairnsdale, Australia.
Police have reported a handful of arson incidents in Australia’s recent bushfires, but nowhere near the number that some claim.
Luis Ascui/Getty Images
Umair Irfan is a correspondent at Vox writing about climate change, Covid-19, and energy policy. Irfan is also a regular contributor to the radio program Science Friday. Prior to Vox, he was a reporter for ClimateWire at E&E News.

A false claim that a big wave of arson is driving Australia’s raging bushfires has gone viral this week on social media, particularly among climate skeptics grasping for a counter-narrative about the wildfire disaster.

Donald Trump Jr. and Sean Hannity were among the most prominent tweeters this week of the allegation that close to 200 people in Australia have been charged with arson for deliberately lighting brushfires. Other people on the right, as well as bots trying to amplify climate skepticism, jumped on board with the hashtag #ArsonEmergency.

In many instances, the people promoting the arson narrative are doing so to refute climate change as a driver of the fires, with some conspiracy theorists going as far as to blame environmentalists for deliberately starting fires.

To be clear: Climate change is definitely a factor in the growing severity of Australia’s fire risks. And there is no arson emergency in Australia; the number of arrests for arson being cited is wrong. In fact, the Fox article in Hannity’s tweet debunks his headline:

“The fires, fueled by drought and the country’s hottest and driest year on record, have been raging since September, months earlier than is typical for Australia’s annual wildfire season. So far, the blazes have killed 25 people, destroyed 2,000 homes and scorched an area twice the size of the state of Maryland,” reports Fox News.

“The NSW Police Force announced Monday that since Nov. 8, authorities have taken legal action against 183 people for fire-related offenses, including 24 individuals who have been charged for allegedly deliberately lighting bushfires — a crime punishable by up to 21 years in prison,” adds Fox.

Let’s unpack what’s going on here. The source of the “nearly 200” people being charged with arson claim is a news release from the New South Wales Police Force on January 6, 2020. What the release actually says is that legal action was taken against 183 people since November 8, 2019, for fire-related offenses, including things like improperly discarding cigarettes or not taking enough precautions around machinery, i.e. not arson. Legal action “ranges from cautions through to criminal charges,” according to NSW police, so not everyone is being charged with a crime. And not all of these penalties are for incidents linked to the wildfires.

It turns out that only 24 people are currently facing criminal charges for deliberately igniting fires in New South Wales, and even fewer have actually managed to start large fires. Remember that this is the number of people charged over the course of three months. There have been thousands of bushfires burning across Australia since September, scorching an area larger than West Virginia. As of Thursday morning, there were close to 150 different fires burning across New South Wales. Many of them are burning in remote, sparsely populated areas. So clearly this is not just the work of prolific pyromaniacs.

Officials in the state of Victoria have also refuted arson as a major cause of bushfires. “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 told The Age on Thursday. In the State of South Australia, 10 people have been arrested since September for deliberate or reckless fire behavior.

The main cause of fire ignitions of Australia’s bushfires is dry lightning, essentially lightning from thunderstorms that don’t produce rain. “The majority of these bushfires have been generated by lightning strikes associated with weather and climate effects,” Dale Dominey-Howes, a professor of hazard and disaster risk sciences at the University of Sydney, told HuffPost.

In fact, some of the bushfires have grown so large they have created their own thunderstorms, in turn producing more lightning.

And the point of ignition doesn’t change the underlying fact that the most densely populated parts of Australia, particularly New South Wales, are getting hotter and drier, vastly increasing the risk of a major conflagration. Australia is coming out of its hottest and driest year on record as ocean circulation patterns aligned to heat up the continent and drive away rainfall. Over the long term, climate change is raising the likelihood of extreme wildfires, a risk Australian scientists have been warning about for years.

So whether the spark comes from a lighter or lightning, the fact that so much vegetation is ripe to ignite over such a vast area is clearly due to long-term trends. “Arson is a red herring,” Mike Flannigan, director of the Canadian Partnership for Wildland Fire Science at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, told NBC News.

Map of changes in forest fire danger in Australia from 1978 to 2017.
Forest fire danger in Australia has increased dramatically in New South Wales and Victoria since 1978.
Bureau of Meteorology

But police are on high alert for fire ignitions because the risk of fire is so high — a total fire ban is in place in many parts of New South Wales — and the consequences are deadly. That’s why the punishments for carelessness are so severe:

Penalties relating to bushfires under the NSW Crimes Act, the Rural Fires Act, and Rural Fires Regulation include:

- Damaging property with the intention of endangering life — up to 25 years imprisonment;

- Manslaughter — up to 25 years imprisonment;

- Starting a bushfire and being reckless as to its spread — up to 21 years imprisonment;

- Lighting a fire when a total fire ban is in place — up to 12 months imprisonment and/or a $5500 fine;

- Not putting out a fire that you have lit — up to 12 months imprisonment and/or a $5500 fine;

- Failing to comply with a bush fire hazard reduction notice — up to 12 months imprisonment and/or a $5500 fine;

- Light or use a tobacco product within 15 metres of any stack of grain, hay, corn, straw or any standing crop, dry grass or stubble field — up to a $5500 fine.

So why did this arson emergency talking point suddenly surge?

Timothy Graham, a lecturer at the Queensland University of Technology who has built a tool for detecting fake social media accounts, said many automated accounts, a.k.a. bots, were amplifying the #ArsonEmergency hashtag.

“It really looks, in many ways, like classic disinformation,” Graham told NBC News. “Australia has been pulled into a global disinformation landscape.”

It’s not clear who is behind these bots, but such anti-environment disinformation campaigns have emerged before when climate change became a trending topic, like when CNN held a climate change town hall for presidential candidates last September.

There are other kinds of misinformation about the bushfires spreading as well, such as misleading maps of fire damage. Some social media users have also been blaming environmentalists for blocking hazard-reduction burns to reduce wildfire risk. But environmental groups like Australian Greens actually support these tactics. Fire officials also say that fuel reduction burns won’t solve the underlying problem of increasing heat and dryness. And with Australia’s fire season growing longer, there are fewer times of the year left to safely start fires to reduce the risk of a major blaze.

“We can’t see these fuel reduction burns as a silver bullet,” Steve Warrington, chief officer of the Country Fire Authority in Victoria, told Australia’s 3AW on Wednesday.

It’s not the first time we’ve seen environmental groups baselessly blamed for fires. Amid the surge in forest fires in the Amazon rainforest last year, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro said with no evidence that environmental activists were starting the blazes.

Such blame-shifting serves to deflect attention away from the underlying causes of these environmental disasters and the difficult changes needed to mitigate them, particularly curbing greenhouse gas emissions. In Brazil, that would mean confronting the country’s lucrative agriculture sector. In Australia, it means challenging the powerful coal mining industry.

Misinformation is always a risk in a chaotic, fast-moving situation, but in Australia’s bushfires, the evidence points toward mostly natural sources of ignition on top of natural weather variability and human-caused climate change.