Improving data collection on arson will lead to a reduced number of wildfires

A/Prof. Janet Stanley1, Ms Belinda Young1

1University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Australia


Society continues to have little understanding why people light fires, either maliciously or recklessly, that risk becoming a catastrophic wildfire. Given the current climate changes that are conducive to more frequent, severe fires, there is an urgent need to greatly improve our response. Without this, as has been already shown, it is very difficult to prevent catastrophic fires.

Major transformative changes are needed to adequately address the problem of human ignition of fires. Areas that need addressing include improved coordination between the police and other stakeholders. This presentation will particularly address research findings on the paucity of data that is being collected around the causes of ignition, on an international basis. Such findings include that only about 1 in 5 fires are officially recorded in Australia and only selected reasons for the fire are officially recorded, the types recorded varying between countries, and locations. The majority of instances of arson do not get into a police investigation, and even far less lead to a conviction, and almost none in Australia to treatment for the behaviour. The data collected by fire services commonly has omissions, large categories of ‘unknown’, inconsistencies in definitions, and speculated causes.

Computing can now offer a sophisticated way of using data, such as the prediction (with 75% accuracy) the likelihood of reoffending of arson suspects known to the police, leading to an improved understanding of serious crime and thus the ability to prevent the occurrence of some of these major fires.


Associate Professor Janet Stanley is Principal Research Fellow at the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, School of Design, The University of Melbourne, visiting Professor at Hiroshima University, Japan, and consultant in sustainability. Janet’s work focuses on the interface between social, environmental and economic issues across policy, system design, and at community levels. Janet specialises in social inclusion and equity, transport, climate change, child and youth welfare, wildfire, policy, spatial planning and place making, and evaluation. She has approximately 150 publications, including five authored and edited books, including Stanley, J.R., March, A. Ogloff, J., & Thompson, J. (2020) Feeling the Heat: International Perspectives on the Prevention of Wildfire, Vernon Press, Delaware, USA. Janet has been an expert reviewer for the IPCC, a member of Ministerial Reference Council on Climate Adaptation for the Victorian Government, and a member of the Federal Climate Change Environmental and Social Consultative Roundtable to inform the design of Australia’s Emission Trading Scheme.