Bugging the firebugs: when safety trumps civil liberties
I would never presume to pre-empt the outcome of the Royal Commission into the Victorian bushfires, the worst natural disaster Australia has endured.
The speed and ferocity of the blazes that engulfed those quiet rural towns, and shattered so many lives and families remains beyond comprehension.
People who haven’t seen such devastation first-hand still find it difficult to imagine. Those who endured that day will find it impossible to forget.
My first experience as a witness to the devastation caused by bushfire was back in 1983, in the aftermath of Ash Wednesday
The following morning in the Adelaide Hills glows in my memory like a Drysdale painting – orange and umber, black fences against a sorrowing sky, the yellow flames that had burned away some portion of the great Australian dream: a house among native trees just out of town.
Fire that exploded from tree to tree and outrunning even kangaroos, had made the Hills eerily silent.
Even the birds and grasshoppers were dead.
I saw houses left untouched, while homes beside them were utterly destroyed.
The wrath of the heavens was both selective and cruel.
And in our State’s south-east, I will always remember the faces of those who survived; the miles of ash like freshly fallen snow; pine trees whose resin had exploded, felling entire forests as if a nuclear bomb had struck our land.
But the chilling truth is that over so many decades and in so many parts of our continent, much of this devastation has been wrought deliberately.
I do not pretend to understand the psychology of the firebug.
I have been told so many theories of how they gain some sense of power by seeing the evil they have unleashed.
For authorities around Australia, the challenge is to reduce the massive number of deliberately-lit fires that cost lives and destroy communities.
At the most recent COAG meeting in Hobart, I told the Prime Minister and other Premiers about a practical, common-sense strategy that is designed to target potential arsonists.
Everyone knows that catching and convicting bushfire arsonists is extremely difficult unless they are caught red-handed.
Our focus, through a program called Operation NOMAD, is on preventing them from plying their deadly deeds in the first place.
So, on days of high fire risk, police officers “visit” potential offenders who have been identified as suspects through the intelligence process.
We let them know we’re on to them.
Police also maintain a highly-visible presence in areas of heightened bushfire risk, such as the Adelaide Hills.
On the day of the hellish Victorian fires, when South Australia was also experiencing weather conditions that posed our worst-ever recorded bushfire risk, 120 officers were deployed on Operation NOMAD.
On Black Saturday, 75 NOMAD patrols undertook around 600 hours of operations.
Police visited and re-visited 40 “persons of interest” in their homes, and informed them they were under surveillance.
An automatic vehicle number plate recognition system is also deployed in areas that are considered to be prone to bushfires.
Under this initiative, the vehicle number plates of suspects are uploaded and police are immediately alerted if these vehicles pass police cameras strategically located in high-risk fire areas.
None of the 16 fires reported in South Australia on that tragic day were deliberately lit.
The bottom line is that, under Operation NOMAD, the number of serious bushfires in South Australia continues to decrease as the number of arrests for fire-related offences rise.
There are even examples of NOMAD patrols catching fire bugs in the act of lighting bushfires.
One man was arrested in January this year, when a NOMAD patrol saw him crouching in bushes at the roadside.
He was allegedly in the process of lighting a fire with a disposable lighter.
Also last year, a NOMAD patrol couldn’t find a Riverland suspect at home.
They then drove to a known fire risk area and found her allegedly in the process of lighting a fire. She was arrested and charged.
Police, fire and national parks officers work closely together to make NOMAD work.
The public is also involved, as the eyes and ears of the emergency services.
Highlighting the effectiveness of this collaboration, there was a recent incident where Molotov cocktails were found by firefighters at a fire scene.
They preserved the area and alerted the police, who identified fingerprints that were then linked to those found on other Molotov cocktails located nearby.
As a result, two alleged offenders were arrested and were charged with deliberately lighting two bushfires.
They now face life imprisonment.
I’m sure the Royal Commission will come up with many positive ideas on how we, as a nation, can be better prepared to deal with the menace of bushfires.
But across the border in South Australia, we have a program that works, has strong public support, and is at least reducing the incidence of bushfires that are deliberately lit.
- You can follow Mike Rann on Twitter at twitter.com/PremierMikeRann
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