FACT CHECK: Have 183 People Been Arrested For Deliberately Starting The Australian Wildfires?

Brad Sylvester | Fact Check Editor

The Sun and other news websites published articles saying that Australian authorities have arrested 183 people for deliberately starting the wildfires raging across the country.

Verdict: False

The 183 figure is misleading. It includes statistics from some Australian states covering the entire year, rather than just the current fire season. The figure also counts all bushfire-related law enforcement actions in other states.

Fact Check:

Bushfires have swept across Australia since September 2019, killing at least 30 people and burning more than 24.7 million acres, according to BBC News. Australia recorded its hottest and driest year yet in 2019, providing the perfect conditions for intense and prolonged bushfires, which many scientists say have been exacerbated by climate change.

The Sun and several other media outlets ran headlines alleging that police have arrested nearly 200 people for deliberately starting the wildfires. Some, like The Sun and InfoWars, cited vague police data from various Australian states. (RELATED: Viral Image Claims To Show A Baby Koala Rescued From The Australian Wildfires By A Golden Retriever)

“FIRESTARTERS More than 180 people arrested for arson as Australia bushfires left 26 dead and razed 2,000 homes,” reads The Sun’s headline.

“Many have blamed the fires on climate change but new shocking figures have revealed cops in the country have arrested 183 people suspected of starting fires in the wild,” writes The Sun later its article. “A total of 101 people have been arrested in Queensland, 24 in New South Wales, 43 in Victoria, five in Tasmania and 10 in South Australia.”

But according to Australian law enforcement spokespeople, that figure includes statistics from some states covering the entire year, rather than just the current fire season. The figure also counts all bushfire-related law enforcement actions in other states.

A spokesperson for the Queensland Police Force told The Guardian that the 101 figure cited for the state represents “police enforcement actions” for a broad range of bushfire-related offenses, including “charging, restorative justice or cautioning.” That means the figure does not represent the total number of individuals arrested for deliberately starting wildfires, as The Sun and other outlets suggested. Legal actions can range from cautions to fines to criminal charges for offenses less severe than arson.

Since Nov. 8, 2019, New South Wales (NSW) police have taken action against 183 people for 205 bushfire-related offenses, according to a Jan. 6 NSW Police Force statement. Of those 183 individuals, 24 were charged with deliberately setting bushfires, while others face legal action for, among other offenses, not complying with the total fire ban or improperly discarding lit cigarettes or matches, per an email from the NSW Police Force media unit.

The reported 43 figure for Victoria counts all recorded offenses of intentionally or recklessly causing bushfires for the year ending September 2019, according to data provided to the DCNF by the state’s Crime Statistics Agency. That means those offenses occurred before the current bushfire season. (RELATED: Does This Photo Show Australian Fires From Above?)

In Tasmania, there have been at least five charges for arson, including two for attempted arson, over the past six months, though those charges typically refer to non bushfire-specific incidents, according to News.com.au. Since July 1, 2019, there have been at least two charges for unlawfully setting fire to vegetation.

South Australia has seen 10 arrests or reports for causing bushfires intentionally or recklessly between Sept. 1, 2019 and Jan. 8, 2020, Senior Constable Rebecca Stokes told the DCNF in an email.

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Brad Sylvester

Fact Check Editor
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