Thursday, January 9, 2020

Murdoch's mendacious myth-building on bushfires and arson.

While arguing at Wattsupwiththat I started to encounter a run of claims that 183 people had been arrested for arson in connection with the ongoing bushfires in Australia. They cited this article in Murdoch's Australian, with the headline "Bushfires: Firebugs fuelling crisis as national arson arrest toll hits 183". So I read the article.

The headline seems immediately misleading. The story actually says
  "NSW police data shows that since November 8, 24 people have been arrested for deliberately starting bushfires, while 184 people have been charged or cautioned for bushfire-related offences."

An earlier version had said
“183 people have been charged or cautioned for bushfire-related offences since November 8", which seems to be where the headline 183 came from. But "charged or cautioned for bushfire-related offences" is very different from being arrested for arson. Australia rightly has draconian laws on fire safety in hot weather, and many of these offences relate to home barbecues, dropping cigarette butts, or fireworks.

Quite a lot has now been written on this story. Ketan Joshi has an informative Twitter thread. Snopes refutes an Infowars version of the story. Sou at HotWhopper has a lot to say on the real causes of the bushfires, and on the widespread attempts to push the "it was arsonists" line.
There is another Twitter thread by Jason Wilson, in which he notes that the story was even pushed by Trump Jr.

The prompt for the articles was this statement by NSW Police. It says:
"Since Friday 8 November 2019, legal action – which ranges from cautions through to criminal charges – has been taken against 183 people – including 40 juveniles – for 205 bushfire-related offences. 
 Of note:
 - 24 people have been charged over alleged deliberately-lit bushfires
 - 53 people have had legal actions for allegedly failing to comply with a total fire ban, and
 - 47 people have had legal actions for allegedly discarding a lighted cigarette or match on land."

Note that the Australian text is already inflating. They have (later) boosted the 183 to 184, and counted the "arson" charges separately to the 183. But there is, or seems to be, a subtlety missed in the discussion. The headline now says "Bushfires: Firebugs fuelling crisis as national arson arrest toll hits 183"

. The word "national" has been added. The original version, as shown in the screenshot by Joshi and preserved in the URL, did not have it. And indeed, the article does list a number of allegations in other states, although they add to 172, not 183.

At this point, I note that a very similar story appeared in the Trump-supporting Epoch Times, headed "Police Take Legal Action Against More Than 180 in Australia for Alleged Bushfire-Related Offenses"
But from the URL, the original headline was the familiar "nearly-200-people-arrested-in-australia-for-deliberately-lighting-bushfires". They appended a correction:
"Correction: A previous version of this article, in the headline, incorrectly stated the actions police took against 183 people for alleged bushfire-related offenses in Australia. Police have taken legal action against them. The Epoch Times regrets the error."
They do acknowledge that the original headline misrepresented the NSW Police report.

Not so the Australian. They just changed the headline to  switch the basis of the claim from NSW to national, even though the arithmetic doesn't add up. So I looked a little further.

The Oz said
"Queensland police say 101 people have been picked up for setting fires in the bush, 32 adults and 69 juveniles.

In Tasmania, where fires have sprung up in the north of the state and outside Hobart, four were caught setting fire to vegetation. Victoria reported 43 charged for 2019."

I can't find out much more about the Qld figure, which would have to be more than half the national claim. "Setting fires in the bush" is not necessarily arson; it could be campfires, BBQs, farmers burning off. But I did dig into the Victorian figure.

I found it is based on the Crime Statistics Agency data. The specific offences are under B12, in a table you can download here. There were 21 charges of "INTENTIONALLY CAUSE A BUSHFIRE", 21 of "RECKLESSLY CAUSE A BUSHFIRE", and one of "RECK SPREAD FIRE TO VEGETATION-PROP OTHR". Only the first charge seems to be properly described as arson. But there may be more than one of these charges per incident, or per person. So I looked up this table, which said that there were 32 incidents, not 43. I could not find the number of offenders; the tables don't seem to have that data.
I found more information about the Victorian data in this CSA table, which lists incidents, with action taken. For year to Sep 2019, there were 34 B12 incidents, for which:
1. 16 charges were laid
2. 7 no charges laid
3. 11. unsolved.
This seems inconsistent with the other table saying 43 charges were laid (which Murdoch used). It may be that a lot of those 43 were withdrawn.

But of course the key fact is that this CSA data relates to the previous whole year, Oct 2018-Sept 2019. There is no overlap with this season's fires, which in Victoria did not start until after September.

So there it is. The Australian tried to beat up a NSW police statement into a "nearly 200 arson arrests" story. When that wouldn't hold, they just tried to reframe it as a national total. But the data doesn't say that at all.

Update: I see that the NY Times has a new analysis of the role of the Murdoch press in dishonestly promoting the arson (and "greenies wouldn't allow hazard reduction burns") narratives, with a link to Timothy Graham's QUT analysis of the role of bots in promoting the story.

Update: There is another article in the Telegraph which covers a lot of the same ground, but clarifies the Qld matter:
"The claim 101 people in Queensland have been arrested for arson this summer has also been circulated. 

However, Queensland police said the figure includes a broader range of fire offences, including breaching of total fire bans, and was not a total of arrests, but a total of “police enforcement actions”.

Queensland police told local media that of the total reported bushfires in the state between 10 September and 8 January, around 10 per cent are believed to have been deliberately lit."

 The cover-up is also based on lies.

I have plotted by year the number of "deliberately start bush fire" (code 411G) offences on Victoria for the last decade (doesn't include this year). There is no recent uptick, in fact the opposite.

From the Melbourne Age:

""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 said.

 The CFA incident controller in Bairnsdale, Brett Mitchell, backed up that statement on Thursday, saying that none of the recent fires in the East Gippsland area have been started by arson."

Update from The Age
"A News Corp employee has accused the organisation of a "misinformation campaign" filled with "irresponsible" and "dangerous" coverage of the national bushfire crisis, urging executive chairman Michael Miller to think about the "big picture".
"I have been severely impacted by the coverage of News Corp publications in relation to the fires, in particular the misinformation campaign that has tried to divert attention away from the real issue which is climate change to rather focus on arson (including misrepresenting facts)," she said."

Update: Here is an AFP factcheck. Like many such, they still have it only part right. They say
"The claim is false; while more than 380 people have been arrested for fire related offenses, including breaking recently imposed and widespread fire bans" They haven't been arrested. I haven't seen any police statistics on arrests; they list charges and cautions. A lot of charges would have been on summons. It's worth remembering that there are two false aspects to the Murdoch story - 1) all those people were arrested, and 2) they were charged with arson. I have seen a lot of factchecks that checks only one part.

But the fact check does go further into other state statistics.


  1. I'm surprised that there were 21 charges of "INTENTIONALLY CAUSE A BUSHFIRE", even if it was national and for a full year... I don't understand the mindset that would lead to thinking that a bushfire would be a good idea. (whereas, I do understand how people could be stupid about cigarette butts, fireworks, campfires, etc.)


    1. It is for Victoria, and for the previous fire season, not current. Arsonists do exists - many are teenagers or sometimes less. They are often ineffective, because they light fires in populated places where they can be quickly countered.

      From SBS:
      "Meanwhile, the Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews told ABC Gippsland on Tuesday that none of the fires burning in the state had been confirmed to have been deliberately lit."

    2. Thanks, that is useful context! -MMM

  2. I just took a look at the recent Australian fires using NASA's Worldview here, where you can add satellite derived fire pixel overlays and use a vegetative enhanced false color composite (MODIS 7-2-1 or VIIRS M11-I2-I1) showing live growing vegetation in bright green, burned areas brown, and smoke as blue, with a resolution up to about about 0.25 to 0.5 kilometers per pixel (you can zoom in and zoom out). This combination makes if very easy to follow the fires daily. I noticed many fires starting when there were no thundershowers in the area at the time or on the preceding day, which might indicate human related ignition (although the once per day images could easily miss thundershowers a few hours before or after the image time). A more thorough check would be to use radar imagery in conjunction with fire location information to better determine if a fire might have been ignited by lightning. I can also imagine that one or several determined and knowledgeable arsonists could easily start dozens if not hundreds of fires over a span of a month or two and not get caught at all. The only way to find out would be to catch one and get a confession, which is much easier said than done. I suspect most or all of the arsonists that have been arrested were probably not very knowledgeable on how to avoid being caught.

    The whole issue of wildfires is very complex and weather and climate is only one aspect. Before I retired, I used to forecast ozone and particulate matter air quality, which are both affected wildfires. I spent many years looking at satellite imagery and weather data and forecasts to that end. Most areas where wildfires occur have had long histories of fire occurrence and wildfires undoubtedly predate humans. There are also many areas where humans have intentionally started wildfires for various purposes for thousands of years, including driving game into ambush and for preparation of fields for agriculture or pasture. Consequently, considerable reliable historical data would be needed to determine if climate is changing significantly in an area and whether that change is more or less favorable for wildfires. Unfortunately, much of the wildfire and historical weather data are not accurate enough for long enough in duration to be able to make confident assessments in that regard. Many areas have such naturally variable weather and climate that trying to make assessments for less than a hundred years comes with significant uncertainty because of lack of proper knowledge of the full range of natural variability that can occur over hundreds or thousands of years. Paleo proxy data for temperature and rainfall often hint at larger variability in the past in these areas and for reasons that we do not understand very well yet. So I am skeptical that we can accurately determine if changing climate is a significant influence on wildfires at present. I suspect the main anthropogenic effect is from ignitions related to human activities, either accidental or on purpose and not from changing climate in these fire-prone areas. I also expect that the most cost effective mitigation can be achieved by improved forest and range management to keep fuel loads low.

    1. Bryan,
      I think NASA worldview is a blunt instrument for locating ignition in time. Typically, lightning will set tree alight. It may smoulder for days before a hot wind picks up and spreads sparks.

      "So I am skeptical that we can accurately determine if changing climate is a significant influence on wildfires at present"
      What is very clear here is that bad fires happen on hot windy days. So the real question is whether we are getting more hot windy days. We certainly are. Victoria's last mega-fire, in 2009, was also our hottest ever day (by quite a margin). Of the two others since reliable recording, Black Friday 1939 was the previous hottest ever day, and Ash Wednesday 1983 was also exceptionally hot and windy. Notice the progression of the dates?

      I did an analysis here of the progression of heat waves in Victoria.

      "I suspect the main anthropogenic effect is from ignitions"
      No-one has given any evidence that ignitions of any kind are becoming more frequent. It is what happens after the ignition that matters. Fires used to last for a few days at most. Now they go on for weeks, and no-one can stop them.

    2. Bryan,
      I've appended a new graph of "deliberately start bushfire" charges. The most recent year is the lowest of the decade.

    3. Nick,
      Thanks for the links. I looked at both. I agree Worldview is not appropriate for determining wildfire causes, but I wanted to see how these fires compare to many others I have seen over the years around the globe. They are certainly among the worst I have seen. The smoke production was very intense recently and I saw evidence of a long plume with embedded large dense smoke clouds extending all the way to South America. I have seen similar long dense plumes emanating from large clusters of wildfires in Siberia, Alaska, and Canada in the past.

      In my experience, extreme summer drought and extreme high temperatures correlate. We had a very nasty drought with very hot temperatures in much of Texas in 2011. It was so bad that some of the trees died in greenbelts near where I lived at the time. There are still large patches of dead trees around today in some rural areas of the Central Texas Hill Country.

      I have observed that wildfires follow a daily cycle peaking in the afternoon when wind and temperature increase and relative humidity decreases. The fires then subside overnight, often smoldering with low hanging smoke that can reach very high concentrations at ground level in the morning. The length and intensity of the smoke plumes on satellite imagery is a good gauge of the wind strength and direction. Worst case conditions are obviously from strong winds in conjunction with dry ground, low relative humidity, and high fuel load. Extremely hot temperatures are not necessary, but often occur in conjunction with bad summer wildfire events. The undergrowth fuel load appears to be critical to generating extremely intense blazes with favorable weather conditions. However, without high fuel loads, I have read that fires are much more manageable even with favorable fire weather conditions. Considering the tiny amount of Australian man-made CO2 emissions relative to increasing global emissions, it does not appear that reducing CO2 levels in Australia will have any significant effect on any possible influence from projected increasing global man-made CO2 emissions in coming years. Thus, reducing man-made CO2 emissions in Australia is not likely to be a good mitigating strategy for future wildfires in Australia in areas that did not already burn. I have read there was a commission report back in 1939 that recommended managing fuel load for mitigation, but apparently it has not been followed very well in practice recently.

      I have yet to see a comprehensive analysis of extreme temperature and drought for Australia, but I have not researched it either (wouldn’t be surprised if there is at least one good paper out there). When analyzing extreme weather events, including drought and extreme high temperatures, it would be best to have a very long period of record, like a thousand years, to put the current trends in proper context. Of course, we are not so lucky and have to make do with what we have. What we don’t know is if there might be decadal to century scale natural weather/climate oscillations involved. That makes it difficult to assign a magnitude of attribution to human activities regarding wildfires, whether local or global. I have seen drought proxy studies over the last thousand years or so that indicate droughts may have been longer and more intense in California than seen during the last 150 historical years, but I have no idea if that might be true in Australia as well.

      I am very supportive of climate modeling, but our current unvalidated global climate models are not yet suitable for attribution or prediction purposes and will not be until they are fully validated and demonstrate good skill in making decadal-scale predictions. Using them at this stage amounts to little more than speculation. In complex modeling, there are too many ways to get the “right answers” for the “wrong reasons” short term, and when that happens, the models will eventually fail and will produce misleading results in the interim.

    4. Bryan - nearly all the big fires were started by dry lightning. There's a report on ABC about it, but you can also confirm by checking remote sensing - look at Himawari-8 imagery (available in Worldview) for late afternoons to catch thunderstorms. You'll see pulses in ignition activity (new hotspots) in late Oct (NSW), late Nov/early Dec (NSW and VIC) and later in Dec too. Each relates to periods of storm activity. Currentky only one or two significant fires are 'suspicious'. Most (99% by area, according to the ABC) are from lightning this year. A bad combination of record hot, record dry and a collection of sparks in remote areas.

  3. Bryan

    "I also expect that the most cost effective mitigation can be achieved by improved forest and range management to keep fuel loads low."

    Yeah, I think Australia probably does this better than anywhere already. we're pretty organised and prepared - they typically aim to burn on a 7 year cycle.
    Issue is they can only do it with favourable weather... Which is becoming rarer. So it's not really a cost effective mitigation if you can't do it safely.

  4. In the hope that this thread is less technical than usual, may I ask if there is anything to the complaint that had proper (adequate?) standing and equipped fire fighting staff been funded, the present conflagration might have been reduced?

    It looks to me as if the exposure here was too vast. ???

    1. "It looks to me as if the exposure here was too vast. ???"

      Yes, that is pretty much it. The resources for fire-fighting were similar to previous years, when they were sufficient. The fires this time are just so much bigger (and more numerous). I'm sure one outcome will be a further increase in resources.

  5. Saw this posted on Facebook today and even though it is dated 2008, it is likely to be pertinent to recent wildfires.

    1. Clickable link here. Forgot that Blogspot doesn't automatically link urls like Wordpress.

    2. Brian,
      These are criminologists, assembling other people's data. But a key extract is:
      "Some caution should be taken when considering these figures. Just over 40 percent of vegetation fires across Australia do not have a cause assigned by the responding fire agency. Furthermore, inconsistencies exist between and within agencies in recording data. For example, different agencies may have different thresholds as to when they consider a fire to be deliberate, suspicious or unknown. Despite these uncertainties, it is clear that natural fires are actually quite rare and that the vast majority of vegetation fires arise from human causes, including deliberate arson."

      The last sentence is quite illogical. It is not at all clear that natural fires are rare. 40% are unknown. They could all be natural.

      But the main thing to watch for is what is included. They talk of "vegetation fires". Grass fires here are far more common than forest. And deliberately lit burning off fires are even more common. Seasonal burning off fires in the savannah are even more common.

    3. Nick,
      Yes, the uncertainty is bound to be large and good point about the "vegetation" aspect to the fires examined. We will likely never know exactly how many of the recent forest fires were started by human activity, either accidental or on purpose. But that should not detract from finding ways to reduce the number of human ignitions (if that is even possible) and to mitigate future fire potential by improved forest management. Maybe there should be a fleet of AI drones providing surveillance? ;-)

  6. I also looked at the BOM summer rainfall totals for southeastern Australia here. Since summer 2019-2020 is not complete yet it only runs through 2018-2019. However, I see little indication of increasingly dry summers in that area. It will be interesting to see 2019-2020 when it gets added to the graph later this year. I can imagine it will be one of the lowest summers for rainfall, if not the lowest.

  7. One more note of interest regarding smoke from the Australian wildfires. I discovered a new weather website ( today thanks to a friend at Facebook. Among three models and many weather parameters, the site also includes modeled Aerosol Optical Depth (AOD) as well as PM2.5 and Dust. The modeled AOD appears to be tracking what I see on satellite imagery today very well. What is interesting is that the latest AOD depiction suggests that smoke from the Australian fires has made it not only to South America, but there are wispy convoluted patches extending all the way into the middle of the southern Indian Ocean. If I am interpreting the output correctly, the smoke may have nearly completed a transit around the globe in the Southern Hemisphere, mostly aloft. The AOD depiction can be seen here, along with the other output (by switching parameters). If the fires flare up again, it may be useful for tracking associated ground level PM2.5.

  8. Better off using the map

    Shows the decline more clearly in the areas affected by fire...

    1. Nathan,
      Thanks for the map link. I switched the map from 1970-2019 to 1900-2019 for comparison and most of the downward trend in rainfall over eastern Australia disappears at that time scale. This evidence suggests a possibility that recent years are simply returning to a drier pattern, with natural oscillations over decades to century scales between drier and wetter.

    2. The rainfall trend by itself doesn't say much about fire risk. Need to look at the statistics of extreme events, impacts on vegetation, and correlation of temperature and precipitation. In general climate change is expected to amplify the hydrologic cycle. Higher temperatures make dry years worse. More wet years or wetter wet years could increase fire risk by promoting vegetation growth and complacency.


    3. 1900;is the only trend that is slightly positive. You should Google Federation Drought.... Was a very dry period in Australia's past. It appears slightly positive beaches the years in between are so wet.

    4. Yes 2019 was very bad for rainfall in Australia, but I don't see much of a trend here ... looks pretty helter skelter.

    5. Southwest, south and southeast have been getting much drier for the last 50 years or so... Those images won't help you see that. But then trend since 1970 is pretty clear.

  9. The normal trend of bushfire starts is 40% arson, 47% other accidental causes so a total of 87% directly human caused. This has been historically consistent across studies. The attempted denial that arson plays a major part in the bushfires when the scientists say it does, and that global warming has no direct link is ludicrous

    1. "This has been historically consistent across studies."

      Your link is based on just one guesstimate by just one "ecological criminologist", who divined this by satellite(!). Here is another version from people on the ground.

      Of course arson exists and is a problem. But the reason why we get huge fires on hot windy days is not that there are special numbers of arsonists. It is because it is a hot windy day (with prior drought), and the frequency of such days has a lot to do with AGW.