A lot of misinformation has been circulating online that puts all the blame for Australia’s unprecedented fires on arson or green policies – anything other than climate change. Spreading the myth that most fires were deliberately lit is a diversion that is both dangerous and wrong. Here is a fact check tackling some of the rumours:
The fires in Australia – which are still burning – have so far killed 29 people and an estimated one billion animals, scorching 17.1 million hectares, more than two-thirds the size of the United Kingdom.
This devastation of epic proportions has got some journalists and politicians in Australia rushing to find someone to blame. While most now realise the scale of the damage is down to climate change, many people have been misled into thinking a lot of the fires were deliberately lit, for example.
This has been reported as a coordinated effort to shift blame away from climate change in order to protect Australia’s leaders – who have no credible climate action plans. Those who are rightly devastated at the loss of life, homes, livelihoods and nature deserve the truth.
Is it true that the fires are no worse than in previous years?
No. They are unprecedented.
The fires started months before they usually do, and have continued to rage during an unprecedented drought and an unprecedented heatwave.
The Australian weather bureau has confirmed that 2019 was the nation’s warmest and driest year on record. And while there have been other really bad fire years, scientists have confirmed that conditions this summer are fundamentally worse.
Australia’s usual bushfire season started in spring rather than the more usual summer – and hit much harder because of the hot, dry conditions. Rainfall was reportedly 40% lower across the country last year. The Climate Council – an Australian climate change organisation – reported that, in some parts of New South Wales, fire services have pushed the start of the “danger period” for fires from October to August.
A coalition of former fire chiefs has been trying to meet with the prime minister since April 2019, as they feared this fire season would be longer and deadlier because of the climate crisis. They allege that current chiefs have been locked out of discussions and were “not allowed” to mention climate change.
Were the fires deliberately lit by arsonists?
Australia has just experienced its hottest, driest year on record, creating tinderbox-like conditions. Every year in Australia, fires are started by any number of things. They can start accidentally through a spark from a chainsaw or from a barbeque.
Rural Fire Services have said some of the biggest fires in New South Wales were started by “dry lightning”. This occurs without any accompanying rain reaching the ground and strikes dried-up land and vegetation. Some fires are even generating their own thunderstorms, which creates lightning, which then starts more fires.
So the unprecedented nature of these fires is not because there has been a sudden increase in malicious activity: it’s because of climate change.
But powerful voices around the world have helped spread the rumour that fires were deliberately lit. Academics researching Twitter concluded that this was the result of a coordinated online disinformation campaign, which used bots to drive certain hashtags into social media. This ultimately spread the lie that climate change wasn’t to blame after all.
This lie has spread so far that even a UK government minister said in the Commons that “it has been widely reported on social media that 75% of the fires were started by arsonists”. However, experts estimate that only about 1% (at most) of the fires were deliberately lit in NSW and Victoria.
Have “Greenies” lobbied against fire-control practices in order to blame climate change?
Why would “Greenies” – the Australian term for nature-lovers – want to allow fires to destroy a billion animals, when their professed desire is to stop wildlife habitats being destroyed and keeping our planet habitable? It just doesn’t make sense on any level.
Rumours that people who care about nature would oppose measures to prevent fires from ravaging homes and lives are simply false. The director of the centre for environmental risk management of bushfires at the University of Wollongong, quoted in the Guardian, said that “these are very tired and very old conspiracy theories” and have “been extensively dealt with in many inquiries”.
Are city-dwellers affected by the fires?
Australia’s deputy prime minister called concerned city-dwellers “raving inner city lunatics” for linking the fires to climate change. There’s also criticism spreading online that people who live in cities shouldn’t get involved because the fires don’t affect them.
The truth is that numerous towns and cities have been shrouded in fire-ash pollution, meaning keeping the doors and windows closed in the middle of the summer. In a heatwave.
Experts have warned of the long term health effects to people – especially young children – as a result of the toxic haze.
Indoor air purifiers have nearly sold out. Children can’t play outside. Babies and toddlers can’t even breathe without it affecting their health. There is even a concern that urban water supplies will become polluted with ash.
Despite these conditions, people have taken to the streets – their country is quite literally on fire. As climate change has become a terrifying reality affecting many Australians directly, powerful actors – who always claimed it wouldn’t have any real impact – are making desperate attempts to distract the public from their lack of action.
Surely now’s not the time to talk about climate change though?
Now is exactly the time.
These fires are devastating and have caused apocalyptic losses of human life, wildlife and forests. The bravery of firefighters and the resourcefulness of communities has rightfully been, and should continue to be, commended.
Australian politicians have suggested in the media that the aftermath of such disasters is not the time to talk about climate change. But fire survivors themselves say that now is exactly the time Australian politicians need to draw the link.
Australian politicians and parts of the media need to stop pushing lies online about the fires being deliberately lit and tackle the real cause of the crisis – the climate emergency.
For Australia, as one of the world’s largest exporters of coal, this means some serious re-thinking of their contribution to the problem.
Helle Abelvik-Lawson is a Web Content Producer at Greenpeace UK
Greenpeace don't tell the truth. CO2 does not cause bush fires. A spark does.
Don't get dumbed down by Greenpeace so called we have the answers, check everything i.e. past history records on every thing that we "must believe" Use your brains you may find it interesting.
I agree with you
85% were started by humans, typical far left self serving practices. how can anyone have any respect for any organization who purposely destroys the planet they pretend to be saving....oh but look how much money these climate activists rake in under the NFP umbrella. what a scam
Thanxs 4 the info I'm doing a debate and I'm sure tis info will make me win Thanxs again
My research from parks and wildfire and bushfire weebly has shown that between 15% and 25% of fires are deliberately lit in Australia on a 20 year average. Up to 43% in 2008 to 2012 in Victoria. The institute of criminology have the figure as high as 64% in 2001 to 2004. Is the 1% in this season accurate?
How can the term unprecedented be used with a straight face here? There have been many worse bushfire seasons in Australia. Black Saturday 2009 173 people died, Black Tuesday Tasmania 1967 62 deaths, Ash Wednesday Victoria 75 deaths. ALL a lot more than the 33 poor souls this bush fire season. In terms of area burnt 1974 117 million hectares is much more than the nearly 19 million burnt this season. In fact between 1997 2016 the area burnt annually was between 18.2 million hectares and 94 million hectares at an average of 53 million hectares annually. That makes this fire season well below the average, hardly unprecedented is it? This information is there for all to see...... I agree that blaming arsonists is a bit rich they are horrible despicable people but they have always started a % of fires.
How can these fires be called “unprecedented” when in fact there has been precedence. 2006 fires killed 171
Twaddle. There is no credible way to correlate an alleged 0.9 deg C average planet surface temperature increase with a forest catching fire. In Physics for a claim of "settled science" one has for example, a 5 sigma level of verification for the Higgs Boson, i.e. 1 in 3,500,000 that the finding is in error. even then, one would still be hard pressed to find a Physicist that would actually claim "its settled science". For the effects of climate change, for which repeatable experiments are simply impossible, all of this goes out of the window. Its equivalent to licking ones finger and sticking it out of the window. Apparently, the main cause of the fires are lightning acting on dry forest. Its simply ludicrous to claim that an average temperature going from say, 35 deg C to 36 degC, or 40 deg C to 41 Deg C and so forth, lead to say, a times 10 increase in the probability of fires. If a forest is dry (not wet), it will catch fire with lightning, whatever the temperature. The question is. If the planet had not experienced the alleged 0.9 deg C increase, is it credible to claim at a 95% confidence level, that say, fires have increased by 5 times, i.e. a claim that the majority of the fires are due to climate change. If fires have only increased say, 10%, then its essentially a non issue, and statements form the like of Boris Johnson claiming that the forest fires are overwhelming evidence of the damage of climate change is, twaddle.
Don't worry about the ambiguous future, just work hard for the sake of clarity
I completely agree with this. This is absurd. I will donate $100 million to multiple charities to prevent this nonsense. I will not die in vain watching this world suffer! I will take any cause to stop this and so can you! Donate a part of your money to prevent these fires and all other climate disasters to stop forever!
For all its shortcomings (including the still-unexplained disabling of my account since May 1), Facebook, not to mention some other social media, has enabled far greater information freedom—as we’ve seen harnessed by, for example, Greta Thunberg—than that offered by what had been for many decades a firmly gate-keeping mainstream news-media, including those of the fourth estate. In an interview by the online National Observer with renowned American author and linguistic/cognitive scientist Noam Chomsky, in which he noted worrisome inconsistencies by what are often perceived as “the liberal media”: Though there are stories published about manmade global warming, “it’s as if … there’s a kind of a tunnel vision — the science reporters are occasionally saying ‘look, this is a catastrophe,’ but then the regular [non-environmental pro-fossil fuel] coverage simply disregards it.” Then there was the unsigned editorial in (local community newspaper) The Surrey Now-Leader printed just before Earth Day 2017, titled “Earth Day in need of a facelift”. Varied lengths of the same editorial were also printed in sister-papers The Langley Times, Chilliwack Progress and Peace Arch News, though it was also run by other B.C. community newspapers, all of which are owned by news-media-mogul (and aspiring oil-refiner) David Black. It opined that “some people would argue that [the day of environmental action] … is an anachronism”, that it should instead be a day of recognizing what we’ve societally accomplished. “And while it [has] served us well, in 2017, do we really need Earth Day anymore?” Though in my lifetime I’ve never heard anyone suggest we’re doing so well as to render Earth Day an unneeded "anachronism”, considering the sorry state of the planet’s natural environment, it was the most irresponsible form of editorial journalism I’ve yet seen in my 32 years of newspaper consumption. For, although some readers may dismiss it as just another opinion, there are many readers (as I once was) who may take such unsigned editorials as a seriously considered and balanced argument.
Were the fires lit by arsonists? Yes. Study by Monash University demonstrated that 87% of fires were related to human activities, and only 13% were due to lightning strikes. Out of those 87%, 13% were actual arson, and close to 37% were suscpicious behavior. So don't mislead the public using the Greenpeace brand here. And enough with the drought reason. Yes, 2019 had been an extremely dry year and climate change is real, but 2019 was not the driest on record and during the even drier times the fires were not as bad. And the start of 2020 has been the wettest on record since 1996, with Melbourne accumulated rainfall so far this January equalling 2.5 months of normal rainfall. Yet new fires still arise. An arsonist with left propaganda masquerading as volunteer firefighter had been caught deliberately setting fires, while the actual firefighters tried so hard to control the fires. Unbelievable. Arsonists should be put into the fires they started, let them enjoy it.
This is a complex subject. Arson and the deliberate setting of illegal fires has always played a part in bushfires in Australia and in wildfires in other parts of the world as well. One key study of this in Victoria and NSW  suggests that of the 113026 fires considered, accidental ignitions accounted for 33% of the total, undetermined causes for 31%, lightning for 9% and deliberate ignitions for 28%. Deliberate fires are defined in this paper as: Fires where there is evidence of deliberately lit fires, including fires lit by juveniles and fires lit without a fire permit; i.e. illegal fires. Suspicious fires where circumstances indicate that the fire was likely to be deliberately lit but ignition source may not be identified. Another reported study of some 300,000 fires across Australia as a whole [reported in 2], using slightly different categories, suggests that deliberate or suspicious fires could account for up to 50% of the total. Although at first sight this is a high percentage, not all will be arson and this figure is nowhere near the exaggerated 75% of fires reported in some media sources as being due to arson in the current fires in Australia. Moreover, fires (some 80%) predominantly occur close to human settlements with most being small ones taking place on the bush/urban interface and burning 5 hectares or less. So, looking at the unprecedented scale of the fires which have taken place this season and the huge areas burned, an estimate of 1% of the burned area being due to the activities of arsonists seems a plausible estimate. So yes, arson is an issue and needs to be addressed but is not as big as some misleading reports would have us believe. To address the second point made by this commentator, there is no doubt that the length of the fire season and the scale of the fires in Australia has been exacerbated by climate change in combination with an extreme positive Indian Ocean Dipole and variations in the Southern Annular Mode and that these have been the most important drivers of the unprecedented events we are witnessing. All in all these will combine to make fires, however they are caused, much more intense and damaging than they might otherwise have been.
You should take the same advice!! I guess Australia has never been in a drought??? And these fires start from spontaneous combustion?? You are as full of misinformation as the rest of the media!Its sad when the media that people depend on for the truth have agendas!! Yes there is climate change but not to the extent that the media portrays it to be. And no one is able to determine how much men have contributed to this warming!! or cooling!!
For so many individual fires started only a fool would rule our caused by man! It is logical to connect the number started in so many areas as being arson. Persons arrested has nothing to do with the actual number of arsonists involved. I would say this would likely be an act of terrorism before putting the blame elsewhere. Think about it! What could a terrorist do to create more damage to a nation than this?
hello Richard are you the Richard who who worked with my husband Ross
Hi Richard, This has been widely refuted. Check out the ABC News article below, quoting both police and fire services that shows: "Only about 1 per cent of the land burnt in NSW this bushfire season can be officially attributed to arson, and it is even less in Victoria, the ABC can reveal." https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-01-11/australias-fires-reveal-arson-not-a-major-cause/11855022