Fact Check

Were 'Nearly 200' People Arrested for Deliberately Starting Australia Bushfires?

Misinformation spread wildly as bushfires devastated Australia in late 2019 and early 2020.

Published Jan 7, 2020

CANN RIVER, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 07: Burnt out forest is seen on January 07, 2020 in Cann River, Australia. Milder weather conditions have provided some relief for firefighters in Victoria as bushfires continue to burn across the East Gippsland area, as clean up operation and evacuations continue. Two people have been confirmed dead and four remain missing. More than 923,000 hectares have been burnt across Victoria, with hundreds of homes and properties destroyed. 14 people have died in the fires in NSW, Victoria and South Australia since New Year's Eve. The Federal Government announced the establishment of the National Bushfire Recovery Fund on Monday, with an initial $2billion to support rebuilding efforts after the devastating bushfires which have burned across Australia in recent months. (Photo by Darrian Traynor/Getty Images) (Getty Images)
Image Via Getty Images
Claim:
"Nearly 200" Australians were arrested in late 2019 and early 2020 for deliberately setting bushfires.

In early January 2020, as bushfires continued to devastate millions of acres on the eastern coast of Australia, various news outlets and social media personalities spread misinformation about the number of people criminally charged with arson in those fires.

The unprecedented fires, which have killed at least 24 people, have destroyed 1,400 homes and killed millions of animals; the fires have been facilitated by extreme weather linked to climate change, like drought and a prolonged wildfire season in Australia, which has also been experiencing extreme heat. The fires are so powerful they are creating their own weather and are expected to continue burning for months to come.

But some, including Alex Jones' conspiracy site InfoWars that spreads climate change denialism, falsely reported that "nearly 200 people" were arrested in Australia for "deliberately" starting bushfires.

That would be a distortion of the facts. Police in New South Wales released a statement disclosing that since Nov. 8, 2019, 183 people, including 40 juveniles, have been charged with 205 bushfire-related offenses. Of the 183, 24 people have been charged with deliberately setting fires. According to police, of the 183, another "53 people have had legal actions for allegedly failing to comply with a total fire ban," and an additional "47 people have had legal actions for allegedly discarding a lighted cigarette or match on land."

Local press reports indicate that not all of the people charged committed acts that contributed to the raging brushfires. For example, a man in the Sydney suburb of Wallacia was fined for lighting a fire to make a cup of tea. That blaze was extinguished by firefighters. Another man was cited for lighting a fire to cook food in the town of Tarro. That fire was also put out by responding crews.

Jason Wilson, a columnist and journalist for The Guardian, wrote, "Sadly, arsonists exist among us, and are always a factor in bushfires. The number of arrests is being highlighted across right wing media in order to muddy the waters and avoid discussing the real reason that bushfire season is longer and more dangerous." Wilson pointed to a statement by a fire captain fighting the fires, who said crews are seeing fires the likes they've never seen before, and the evidence that climate change is driving them is "overwhelming."

Sources

Lutz, Ota. "NASA's Eyes on Extreme Weather."   Jet Propulsion Laboratory. 18 October 2019.

Rice, Doyle. "Climate Change Has Australian Wildfires 'Running Out of Control,' Experts Say."   USA Today. 6 January 2020.

Knaus, Christopher. "Bots and Trolls Spread False Arson Claims in Australian Fires 'Disinformation Campaign.'"   The Guardian. 7 January 2020.

Bethania Palma is a journalist from the Los Angeles area who started her career as a daily newspaper reporter and has covered everything from crime to government to national politics. She has written for ... read more

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