What’s behind the rise in arson?

By: Kath Heiman, Photography by: Kath Heiman

Kath Heiman asks, are we too removed from the elements to which we’re drawn?

What’s behind the rise in arson?
The recorded incidents of arson have grown an incredible 2000% since 1974

Now that we’re enjoying the cooler months, the prospect of a campfire has become particularly appealing. 

For our four- year-old, it’s about roasting marshmallows and making swizzle stix (damper dough twisted around a stick and cooked over an open flame). And it doesn’t take much experience with groups of kids at camp to see that many are tantalised by fire, loving to poke burning embers with whatever they can lay their hands on.

The fact is that, even as adults, a deeply-rooted instinct draws us to fire. I’ve heard that humans are the only species on the planet that will look directly into a flame. It can be pretty mesmerising. But have you ever reflected on why?

One school of thought theorises that the more we’re drawn to fire, the more we demonstrate disassociation from our ancestral roots. Some years back, an evolutionary anthropologist Daniel Fessler published his research into the psychology of fire (Journal of Cognition and Culture 6.3-4, 2006) arguing that humans have evolved psychological mechanisms specifically dedicated to controlling fire. But because most Westerners no longer learn how to start, maintain and use it during childhood, we’ve become curiously (and, sometimes, dangerously) attracted to it.

This line of reasoning seems to be supported by studies into Australian bushfires. About half of the 60,000 fires that occur annually are believed to be the result of arson, and 40% of these are thought to be lit by children and teenagers (McMahon, ABC Newcastle, 22 October 2013).

It’s probably not a coincidence that the recorded incidents of arson have grown an incredible 2000% since 1974 — which is around the time that fires stopped being a ‘normal part of life’ as electricity replaced wood-fired cookers and heaters around the home. In many instances, younger kids light fires because they’re fascinated by it but lack real understanding of its possible effects. As kids become teens, it seems like intentional acts of arson occur when they become bored, disaffected or otherwise harbour anti-social attitudes. In their hands, fire represents entertainment and power, and the effects can be devastating.

In a country like Australia, there is no scope to disrespect fires. While arson is inexcusable, hundreds of fires are simply carelessly or accidentally set — and many of these by uninformed campers and travellers. And even if we’re not setting light to the bush, we can soon make a mess of the places we visit. Our failure to take care will soon see us labelled as cowboys by interest groups who’d prefer to see great tracts of our natural environment rendered off limits to recreational users.

But it can’t all be doom and gloom. I reckon there are few better ways of winding down than kicking back in a comfortable camp chair and gazing at the stars or watching flames flicker in a good fire pit.

It’s about sitting quietly for once, actively taking time to clear my mind. As Wesley Smith from Live Well Naturally tells us, when we disconnect from our fully-wired lives, we can sometimes find solutions to problems that our (normally) cluttered heads simply can’t see. I know I’ve had these moments around a campfire.

At the end of the day, a good campfire is probably destined to remain a feature of an outdoors lifestyle. After all, our ancestors have been manipulating fire for as long as 800,000 years so we’re unlikely to stop anytime soon. And there seem to be real benefits in keeping our kids "in touch" with fire — to embed respect for it, and to understand the impact it can have in the wrong hands. 

There’s probably a lesson for all of us in that.

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