Victoria police say there is no evidence any of the devastating bushfires in the state were caused by arson, contrary to the spread of global disinformation exaggerating arsonist arrests during the current crisis.
A misleading figure suggesting 183 arsonists have been arrested “since the start of the bushfire season” spread across the globe on Wednesday, after initial reports in News Corp were picked up by Donald Trump Jr, US far-right websites and popular alt-right personalities.
The figure included statistics from some states covering the entirety of 2019, rather than just the current bushfire season, which began in October.
In Victoria, 43 alleged arsonists were counted among the 183 arrested “in the past few months” and “since the start of the bushfire season”. That Victorian figure was, in fact, the figure for all of 2019.
“There is currently no intelligence to indicate that the fires in East Gippsland and the North East have been caused by arson or any other suspicious behaviour,” a Victoria police spokeswoman said.
The reported figure of 183 also includes 101 individuals from Queensland who were “picked up for setting fires in the bush”. But a Queensland police spokeswoman said the figure included a broader range of offences than arson, including the breaching of total fire bans, and was not a total of arrests, but a total of “police enforcement actions”.
“Enforcement action includes charging, restorative justice or cautioning,” she said.
Queensland police said between 10 September and 8 January there had been 1,068 reported bushfires in the state, of which 114 had been deliberately or maliciously lit through human involvement and have been subject to police enforcement action.
The Australian subsequently updated its story to say the figure covered people “arrested since the start of 2019”.
Victoria police said they were investigating a suspiciously lit fire in Euroa on 4 January, which burned through a large area of land but damaged no properties. Its cause remained unknown.
NSW police statistics show 24 individuals have been arrested for deliberately lighting bushfires during the current fire season.
But a Rural Fire Service spokesman told Sky News on Wednesday that the majority of the larger fires in the state were caused by lightning, and that arson was a relatively small source of ignition.
Arsonists have been responsible for some of the bushfires this season – though specific numbers are not yet available. There is also no doubt that arson remains a serious problem in Australia, particularly during heightened periods of fire danger. Arsonists have been responsible for some of Australia’s worst fires, including a fire that killed 10 people on Black Saturday in 2009.
But exaggerated claims about arson during the current crisis have also been used to undermine the link between climate change and the longer, more severe bushfire seasons currently being experienced in Australia.
Preliminary research from the Queensland University of Technology suggests bots and trolls are involved in spreading disinformation about arson on Twitter.
Regardless of the source of ignition, Australia’s scientific agencies all state that climate change is creating longer, more severe fire seasons.
On Wednesday, the RFS commissioner, Shane Fitzsimmons, shot down another common argument blaming environmentalists for holding up hazard reduction work.
Fitzsimmons said the main obstruction to hazard reduction was weather conditions. Hazard reduction burns are particularly fraught at times of heightened fire risk.
“Hazard reduction burning is really challenging, and the single biggest impediment to hazard reduction burning is the weather,” he said.
“And with longer fire seasons, earlier starts and later finishes to fire seasons like we’ve been experiencing in recent times, you get a shrinking window of opportunity for more favourable hazard reduction burning periods.”