What started Australia's bushfires?

Mainstream and social media floods with accusations of arson as the culprit of some of the worst bushfires Australia has ever experienced but, officials state this is a misinterpretation of facts.

bushfires
Matt Abbott captures Australian blaze

Australia is left devastated by its latest season of bushfires, with an estimated 10 million hectares (100,000 sq km or 15.6 million acres) of bushes, forests and parks across the country burned. Although cooler temperatures and bouts of rain have provided some relief, over 100 fires continue to rage throughout the states of New South Wales and Victoria.

The extensive fires have killed at least 24 people, millions of animals and destroyed more than 2,000 houses.

In spite of overwhelming scientific evidence that rising CO2 levels are warming the planet and are directly impacting the severity of Australia’s latest bushfires, recent reports from mainstream and social media have sparked a new debate. Unsubstantiated claims of arson rather than climate change have flooded social media stating arsonists and angry climate activists are to blame for the origins of some of the most vicious bushfires Australia has ever experienced.

Anthony Hearsey - visualisation of one month of Australian fire data
Anthony Hearsey - visualisation of one month of Australian fire data

Under the hashtag of #arsonemergency out-of-date photos, photoshopped images, manipulated statistics and misinterpreted fire maps have been shared in an attempt to steer the conversation on the origins of the bushfires away from implications of climate change.  

Accusations range from the misinterpretation of numbers to absurd manifestations of reality. One image shared widely by Twitter users, including singer Rihanna, was interpreted as a map showing the live extent of fire spread, with huge sections of the Australian coastline displayed on fire. This map was actually artist Anthony Hearsey's representation of one month of data of locations where fires were detected, collected by NASA's Fire Information for Resource Management System.

The BBC reported that an analysis of over 300 social media accounts with the prolific use of the ‘arson emergency’ hashtag was carried out. This research found that over a third of the accounts displayed automated or inauthentic behaviour. This suggests that bots and trolls were highly likely to have been involved in bolstering arson allegations. 

A statement from the Victoria Police department further refutes claims of arson stating: “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.” 

There is no denying that fire-related offences and arson remains an issue in Australia. A New South Wales (NSW) Police report released on January 6, states that “legal action” had been taken against 183 people with regards to fire-related incidents since November 2019. NSW, however, confirmed only 24 of the incidents directly related specifically to bushfire offences - the majority disobeyed “total fire bans” or were careless. 

Other falsified claims include Australian National political backlash against environmental activists and the Australian Green Party, who have been positioned as opposing “controlled burning” as a means of preventing fires spreading. Control burning involves a process of deliberately starting fires under controlled conditions to clear out low-lying flammable material as a means of reducing wildfires. Blame has been pushed towards the Green Party despite not having representation at Australian national or state governmental level. The Green Party stated that they support controlled burning if it is carried out under expert management.

The truth remains that Australia’s annual average mean temperatures continue to rise. Scientists have warned for some time that this hotter, drier climate-related to increased emissions will contribute to fires becoming more frequent and more intense.

UK scientists say the extremity of Australia’s latest fires provides a direct example of what the whole world will be facing as temperatures continue to rise, as a result of climate change.

The reality of climate change is becoming ever more evident with meteorologists warning that elevated temperatures and increased fire risks are set to continue.

Katie Burt

Katie Burt

When not found with a laptop at my fingertips, it's likely I'll be running, swimming, attempting to cycle or seeking out decent coffee.

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