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In this Dec. 30, 2019, aerial photo, wildfires rage under plumes of smoke in Bairnsdale, Australia. (AP) In this Dec. 30, 2019, aerial photo, wildfires rage under plumes of smoke in Bairnsdale, Australia. (AP)

In this Dec. 30, 2019, aerial photo, wildfires rage under plumes of smoke in Bairnsdale, Australia. (AP)

Tom Kertscher
By Tom Kertscher January 10, 2020

Those claims about nearly 200 arrested for arson in the Australia bushfires are wrong

A headline on the website of conservative columnist and radio show host Todd Starnes declared:

"The Australia Bushfires Have Nothing to Do With Climate Change; It Was Arson."

The post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.) 

Arson is involved — but to a much lesser extent than the claim suggests. 

And in the view of numerous experts, climate change is certainly involved: It is making the fires more severe than they otherwise would be.

The fires have been exacting a toll for months. According to a BBC News report posted Jan. 7, the same day as the ToddStarnes.com article, the blazes had destroyed nearly 2,000 homes and killed 25 people and millions of animals since September. 

Arson overstated

As for the cause, the website article claims "many of the fires were set by arsonists." The article cites a news story in The Australian that said that more than 180 people have been arrested since the start of the bushfire season and that Swinburne University professor James Ogloff said that about 50% of bushfires were "lit by firebugs." 

The 180 figure is wrong.

New South Wales police reported on Jan. 6 that it has taken "legal action" against 183 people for bushfire-related offenses since Nov. 8. But that number includes 24 people charged with deliberately setting bushfires, 53 people cited for allegedly failing to comply with a total fire ban and 47 people cited for allegedly discarding a lighted cigarette or match on land. Not all of these people were arrested, as the Starnes article claims.

Moreover, bot and troll accounts are likely involved in a "disinformation campaign" exaggerating the role of arson in the fires, according to a social media analysis by a lecturer at Queensland University of Technology in Australia, The Guardian reported.

Climate change widely cited

Meanwhile, experts have been widely quoted saying climate change has made the fires worse. A sampling:

Associated Press: "Scientists, both those who study fire and those who study climate, say there’s no doubt man-made global warming has been a big part, but not the only part, of the fires" — with 2019 in Australia having been the hottest and driest on record. Stanford University environmental studies director Chris Field, who chaired an international scientific report on climate change and extreme events, said this is one of the worst, if not the worst, climate change extreme events he’s seen.

BBC News: "Australia has always experienced bushfires — it has a ‘fire season’ — but this year they are a lot worse than normal … The overwhelming scientific consensus is that rising levels of CO2 are warming the planet. And Australia has been getting hotter over recent decades and is expected to continue doing so." … Climate change is "not the cause of bushfires, but scientists have long warned that a hotter, drier climate would contribute to Australia's fires becoming more frequent and more intense." 

USA Today: "Human-caused climate change is worsening the wildfires scorching Australia, experts say. Climate change is increasing bushfire risk in Australia ‘by lengthening the fire season, decreasing precipitation and increasing temperature,’ according to the Australian Bureau of Meteorology."

Our ruling

A conservative website said: "The Australia bushfires have nothing to do with climate change; it was arson."

It is widely believed by experts that climate change has made the fires much worse than they otherwise would have been, while the role of arson in causing the fires has been widely overstated.

We rate the statement False.

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Those claims about nearly 200 arrested for arson in the Australia bushfires are wrong

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