Community attitudes towards reporting bushfire arson to Crime Stoppers in Victoria, 2012–2015
Australia is a highly fire-prone country, and increasingly so under the influence of climate change. Bushfires are not only increasing in number but trending to be hotter, larger and can be very difficult to extinguish. In 2013-2014, there were 101,867 fires reported to Australian fire service agencies. However, there are many more unreported fires, most of which are bushfires.
The source of ignition is not known for most bushfires. In a 2008 study on reported fires, the cause was unknown for 46.1%; 21.5% were thought to be suspicious; 20% were believed to be accidental or recklessly lit fires; 8.7% were identified as being deliberately lit; 3.6% ‘naturally’ caused (lightening); and 4.5% ‘other’, which includes factors such as re-ignitions and spot fires.
The consequences of bushfires are often severe and can be widely experienced, with impacts that may include death and injury, mental health impacts, water contamination, ecosystems changes and biodiversity loss, as well as economic losses. Thus, it is critical that fires are prevented. An important means of prevention is the reporting of suspicions about illegal fire-lighting to Crime Stoppers Victoria (CSV) in order to facilitate intervention by authorities prior to the fire being lit.
The report summarized here explores who currently reports illegal fire-lighting and why people do or don’t report their suspicions to CSV. Such information could be used to identify where and how reporting responses could be improved in Victoria, and if the pattern of reporting arson differs from the reporting of other crimes.
Approximately 2000 Victorians have been surveyed over eight years, the years 2012 to 2015 being reported here. The 2015 survey covered six bushfire prone regions in Victoria: Latrobe, Yarra Ranges, Nillumbik, Surf Coast, Macedon Ranges and Murrindindi, with Knox as an urban comparator.
The respondents were asked about the circumstances that would impact on their decision to:
- report illegal fire-lighting to CSV, or,
- call the emergency number (000), or,
- handle the situation themself, or,
- not do anything.
The circumstances of the scenarios offered to respondents were varied in relation to the relationship between the observer and the offender, and their beliefs about whether the fire was dangerous or not.
In the 2015 survey, only 8% of respondents wouldn’t do anything in relation to an illegal fire. This pertained to circumstances where children were perceived to be offenders or the event was considered minor, such as throwing a burning cigarette out of a car window. Seventeen per cent of respondents said they would handle the situation themselves, commonly when the situation was judged to be less dangerous such a campfire left burning. Thus, about one quarter of respondents would not report to either CSV or the emergency services number.
Most respondents (75%) would make a report, 58% said they would contact the emergency number (000) and 17% would report to CSV. CSV tends to be viewed as the ‘less serious’ reporting path, such as where the respondent considered that the fire would only be small, or perceived to be accidental. Believing a fire was intentionally caused rather than accidental, would increase the chance that a report would be made by 17%. CSV was also considered to be more suitable for less ‘problematic’, youth who are viewed as more vulnerable (such as where a risk of suicide might be involved) and younger offenders. However, reporting to emergency services increases with the perceived scale of the fire and even a small fire is more likely to be reported to emergency services on a total fire ban day. ‘Suspicious’ strangers in a vehicle are more likely to be reported to emergency services than CSV.
Forty-one per cent of respondents correctly identified that a suspicion should be reported to CSV, while 75% correctly identified that witnessing an illegal event in relation to fire should be reported to 000. While the direction of reporting has improved since 2012, there remains confusion about this difference.
Other factors that influence action taken in relation to illegal fire-lighting are:
- Gender: female responders are more likely to report an illegal fire (to CSV or 000) although some expressed concerns about wasting CSV’s time.
- Report outcome: respondents said they would be more likely to report if they expected there will be a good outcome from their report. This includes providing the police with the extra evidence needed to make an arrest, by making a report to CSV.
- Anonymity: people are more likely to report to CSV if they believe that the report is anonymous. The anonymity of a report to CSV was confidently asserted by 41% of respondents, but 8% of respondents distrusted that reporting was anonymous, with 51% of respondents having a less assertive view.
- Agency: confusion exists about the CSV organisation, 32% of respondents believing that CSV are police or detectives.
- Community crime: communities with higher rates of crime are less likely to report all crimes to CSV and the police.
Ninety-eight per cent of respondents had heard of CSV through the media in 2015, an increase of 8% since 2012. On average, these respondents had seen CSV in at least 3.3 separate media outlets in the previous 12 months. Mention about bushfire in the media was recalled by 42% of the respondents; on television 30%, on the radio 20%, via social media 19%, through local papers, and 11% from billboards. Recall of the CSV phone number was low, 12%, unchanged between 2012 and 2015, despite most respondents preferring to report to CSV by phone (79%). A growing percentage would like to report via a mobile app (9%), especially among younger respondents.
The research findings suggest that the following messages could be considered as a way to increase reporting of illegal fires to CSV:
- Clarification about action that should be taken: report to the emergency number (000) if you witness the illegal fire being lit or burning; report to CSV if you are suspicious that a person is lighting or has lit an illegal fire (1800 333 000).
- All illegal fires are potentially dangerous, whatever the ignition source (accidentally or deliberately lit), and it is not easy to judge progress and outcome of the fire. Therefore suspicion about all illegal fires should be reported to CSV.
- Reporting to CSV is anonymous. This means that you will not get feedback on your report.
- Greater exposure of the CSV phone number.
- Further investigation could be given to the development of a reporting phone app. That may attract greater reporting by younger people who may know of peers who light illegal fires.
- Consideration could be given about any value that may be obtained from clarifying that CSV is a not-for-profit agency and a different organization to the Victorian Police. The findings are mixed about the value of this. Those respondents who distrust the police are more likely to report to CSV. However, another slightly bigger group of respondents believed that it was good that CSV are police/detectives as the reporter shares a common belief system with the police and the police will act quickly on the report.
- The report to CSV is taken very seriously and the information is referred to the police to build evidence to gain an apprehension or put in place deterrents.
- ‘Successful’ outcomes for those who are reported was found to be important to some reporters. Success is viewed two ways: as punishment for the illegal fire-lighter, and as a means of gaining help for the person. Conveyance of ‘success’ stories by CSV may increase reporting to CSV as the findings of this research suggest a reluctance to report offenders well known to the reporter as well as young people. As closer association with a person allows for greater knowledge of their activities, and the most common group who light illegal fires are youth, it is important that offenders from these groups are identified.
- Targeting attention in areas with overall higher crime rates may lead to a higher reporting of all forms of crimes to CSV, including illegal fires.
A/Prof Janet Stanley
Principal Research Fellow, Urban Social Resilience
MSSI, University of Melbourne
Crime Stoppers Victoria, and Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, University of Melbourne