Culprits may face costs of putting out reckless fires

As reported by The Age, people who start bushfires in Victoria (Australia) may be forced to pay the cost of extinguishing them. It then explains how putting out a large fire could cost millions of dollars.

Now I’m no expert, but it seems to me that the number of multi-millionaires starting bushfires is probably very small. So I’m curious to see how the policy would be implemented. The article references the Sentencing Act 1991, but the Act says that the court must “as far as practicable” take into account the financial circumstances of the offender. So they might squeeze a few bucks from them by that avenue, but not a lot in the grand scheme of things.

The article also mentions it opening the offender up to civil lawsuits. That is just going to lead to bankruptcy. I’m not so worried about the offender, but if they have a family then the family’s lives will be ruined too. Let’s assume it’s a bloke for the sake of pronouns (there is apparently a 6:1 ratio of males to females in the arson world, but I’m only talking about accidental arson so that figure is not applicable). So he goes to prison for a while and when he gets out can’t find a decent job, because who wants to employ a criminal? Meanwhile, his wife and kids are at home – no wait, their home got sold as part of the bankruptcy proceedings. The kids now have an unstable home life; they’ve lost their Dad (for a while at least) and have had to move into a rental house, maybe even changed schools. Their single mother is now working full time to support them, and probably struggling to make ends meet. It sure sucks to be the daughter of an angle-grinding enthusiast!

At the end of the day, maybe that’s not so bad. He did a bad thing and he got punished for it, with a little collateral damage which society is willing to accept. Even without the bankruptcy, the kids would still suffer. But I wonder how much of a deterrent seeking compensation will be? Let’s look at how this might play out both before and after the crackdown:

You are a man, living in country Victoria. It’s a 43°C day, hot, windy, and a total fire ban. You suddenly decide to do some welding.
Before: You think to yourself, “If I do the welding and start a fire I could go to prison! I’ll do it anyway.”
After: You think to yourself, “If I do the welding and start a fire, I could go to prison and go bankrupt! I’ll do it anyway.”

The main problem I see is not the strength of the deterrent, but in the failure of the man to accurately assess the risk of what he is doing. You can tell him it is dangerous, but that won’t necessarily mean he makes the mental connection that it really is dangerous. Humans suck at assessing risk! He has probably been welding for 20 years and never had any problems. Even if an errant spark gets out, he is probably pretty confident he can put it out. And maybe most of the time he can. But it is the one time in 20 years that he didn’t that is the problem.

So will the new sentencing guidelines help? I’m guessing that by themselves, almost certainly not. It is the marketing/advertising campaign that surrounds them that will have the real impact, so long as it is successful in making people evaluate the risk of their actions better and thus avoid dangerous activities on fire danger days.

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