It's summer in "the land down under," but the over 400 wild fires that have swept over the southeast portion of that country are leaving little in their wake to be enjoyed by residents and tourists alike. Due to the heat, the lack of rainfall this season, and the suspected criminal actions of a few, over 170 people are known dead with the death total expected to pass 250. Over 750 homes have been destroyed and thousands have fled their residences and businesses in panic as the hungry wild fires continue to bear down on them, this while at least five huge fires and many more somewhat smaller fires continue to burn out of control. The grim death toll to date has far surpassed the 71 lives lost in Australia's infamous "Black Friday" fires of 1939, ones that destroyed 5 million acres of land and 3,700 buildings. At that time it was said that "it appeared the whole State (of Victoria) was alight on Friday, 13 January, 1939." While some of the current fires may be attributable to "acts of god," and others may be the result of accidents, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd suggests that many of the over hundreds of fires across part of his country were the direct result of arsonists, and, as he emotionally states, their actions have resulted in "mass murder."
According to Empedocles, a Greek philosopher and scientist and who lived in the fifth century B.C., all matter was comprised of four elements: earth, air, fire and water. Fire and air, so he said, reached up and out, whereas earth and water turned down and in. Many in America will remember the horrific wildfires that California experienced in late 2007, this when Empedocles' third element, fire, roared across that state, leaving hundreds of thousands of acres charred and almost 2,000 homes and businesses reduced to smoldering rubble, with economic losses reaching the $2 billion mark. While far fewer people died in the California fires then have died so far in Australia, the losses were no less significant and investigators in that state, like in Australia today, had to consider potential sources of sparks and flames such as lightning strikes, down power lines, overheated vehicle mufflers, or a man (or woman) with a lit match.
Winds of over 60 mph blew hot embers across roads and fire breaks in Australia, while the red hot beast with an insatiable appetite continues to savage the land of the Kangaroo, devouring almost 1,000 square miles, this while some citizens have begun to refer to the ongoing fires as Australia's worst peacetime disaster in history. Police and fire officials try in vain to maintain order while citizens try to gather up what they can and run for their lives, with some towns off limits due to the bodies of the dead still laying in the streets. Many areas in Victoria State had the look of devastation normally associated with a war zones, like parts of London and Germany looked like after the fire bombings of WWII, with homes, business, and vehicles mere blackened shells. Some dazed survivors have reported seeing dead horses along the roadsides and frightened and confused kangaroos forced to flee their outback home as hugh fireballs rolled through the countryside, destroying entire towns in their crackling wake.
Many of the fires have been burning for weeks and there appears to be no way to stop the daily advance of the hungry flames short of rain, mild winds, and, perhaps, the fires finally running out of fuel. Meanwhile, the Australian Institution of Criminology has indicated that at least 50% of the 20,000 – 30,000 brush fires each year in Australia are the result of arson.
In 2007, the United States experienced over 65,000 arsons, a figure that was down 6.7% from 2006. While the "average" U.S. arson loss is about $17,000, many, run into the millions of dollars. Arson investigators and criminal profilers have developed a kind of psychological profile for those who set such fires. An arsonist is different from the so-called pyromaniac, the latter being a person who responds to an internal impulse to start fires to relieve personal tension and to obtain the feeling of gratification and the sense of euphoria that he derives from his actions. The challenge with developing a profile for an is that it is based upon the information known to authorities about other arsonists, and since less than 20% of arsons are ever solved, we are missing a lot of date concerning motive and background in our construct of such a profile. We do know that about 50% of the arsonists that are identified are under the age of 18, but the motive for their destructive acts can be wide and varied.
Motive, of course, is key to any criminal investigation and in the case of arson such motive could include revenge, hate and anger. Other motives include arson for hire or arson to get someone out of a financial obligation. In this challenging financial time for most of the world, some may turn to arson as a means to get out of debt or as a means to close their business, permanently. When the economy is down, we many times see an increase in fraud, and arson is one means that some people turn to to cancel their debt. The California State Insurance Division, for example, reported the number of questionable residential fires for 2007 increased 76 % over the previous year.
Other motives for arson can include concealing evidence of a crime; as a form of political protest, like the torching of homes and business claimed by the Earth Liberation Front; while some fires are set strictly as an act of vandalism or by youthful thrill seekers, such as the college-aged men who set a series of church fires in Alabama in 2006. Then there was the 19-year-old woman in PA who set seven fires in one night, but was caught after police reviewed a surveillence video from a 7-11 store that caught the woman singing "The fire department is going to be made at me." Psychologists have suggested that the act of setting a fire provides a sense of power to the arsonist, one he derives as he watches the results of his "handiwork," and one that can provide him with an emotional and physical high similar to that gained by the use of illegal drugs. As if to prove these profiles, Australian arson investigators have arrested two men so far in connection with these fires, one age 31 and one a 15-year-old teenager.
Investigators will be looking for points of origin for the fires, however that is one more terrible trait of a fire, it destroys most evidence of its origin as it burns. Evidence of an accelerant, tire tracks at the point the fire began, or the loose lips of the arsonist himself can help to identify the person responsible for a fire. The current devastation vested upon Australia would bring a tear to the eye of deceased world famous naturalist Steve Irwin were he to see his beloved homeland being ravished more every day. The pain suffered by his countrymen is made even worse when you consider that another one or more Aussies are believed to have set and even reset some of these killer fires.
Had Empedocles been born 1600 years later in Australia instead of his native Sicily, he would have seen magnificent evidence of all four of his elements, with fire currently reaching up and out and dominating the other three for the short term. I think he would have somehow known that it would be left to the air and water to heal the blackened scars on the earth that have been left behind by the flaming holocaust, Meanwhile investigators have begun to look for the minute traces of physical evidence that may, just may lead them to those responsible for the catastrophic fires that have attacked at least part of this noble land, while the people left homeless begin to rebuild their homes, and their lives together. And that, Mate, is just what Australians do.