Australia is burning. Enormous bushfires are engulfing huge swaths of the country’s eastern coast and spreading rapidly through western Australia as well. In just one week, four people have died from the fires and 300 homes have been destroyed. And the situation will only get worse, fire chiefs warn, as drought conditions, rising temperatures and high winds fan the flames. But while climate and environmental conditions are responsible for the rapid growth of Australia’s raging bushfires, law enforcement says individual arsonists are responsible for sparking them.
One of the accused is a 51-year-old resident of Ebor in New South Wales. Police have accused the man, whom they’ve identified as Gavin James Gardiner, of intentionally igniting bushfires in order to safeguard his cannabis crop. The suspect appeared in court on Saturday, where he faced arson charges for lighting the Ebor fire. That fire is still burning and has grown to encompass nearly 25,000 acres of land.
Over the weekend, fire crews in New South Wales and Queensland battled more than 120 bushfires across roughly 2.5 million acres of land. Faced with a fire emergency of such scope and size, with conditions worsening and fueling the fires’ spread, there’s little that crews can do besides containment.
One common strategy for containing wildfires is a practice known as backburning. Backburning involves establishing controlled burns of undergrowth where larger fires are expected to spread. The idea is to deprive the larger fire of the fuel it needs to grow. But backburning is a method of fire containment that is difficult to control and one which can easily backfire.
In Ebor, police allege that a botched attempt at backburning quickly spiraled out of control into a massive fire. Law enforcement have charged 51-year-old Ebor resident Gavin James Gardiner with intentionally starting a backburn to protect a cannabis crop.
Residents first reported the fire to emergency crews at 10:30 p.m. on Thursday, November 14. By 2:00 p.m. the next day, authorities had arrested a man in connection with the fire. Police allege that despite igniting a backburn to safeguard his cannabis crop, the suspect made no effort to control or contain the blaze when, fueled by dry, hot conditions, it grew out of control.
Court documents also show that Gardiner has been accused of intent to use the fire to claim damages and collect government payments for fire recovery. A judge has refused to grant bail. Gardiner will appear in court again on Monday.
The Australian bushfires are sparking an intense nationwide debate about climate change. 2018 and 2017 were Australia’s third and fourth-hottest years on record, and last year, the country experienced its hottest summer on record. Scientists and climate experts say that climate change is fueling the conditions that are making Australia’s fire seasons longer and more severe.
Indeed, extreme heat events, drought and dry conditions are causing catastrophic weather events and wildfires around the world. These extreme events threaten and destroy lives, homes and livelihoods. And they pose an imminent danger to crops, wildlife and ecosystems, including cannabis cultivation. In California, for example, wildfires have scorched cannabis farms in recent years.
Yet in the midst of this year’s bushfire season, Australian media appear to be downplaying the role played by climate change. Instead, they’re focusing on the psychology of individual arsonists accused of starting the fires. Dr. Paul Read, co-director of Australia’s National Centre for Research in Bushfire and Arson, claims that 13 percent of bushfires are deliberately started. Another 37 percent are suspicious. Dr. Read says roughly 31,000 Australian bushfires are either arson or suspected arson.
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