In her award-winning true crime investigation The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire, Chloe Hooper explores the morally fraught question of why anyone would deliberately light a blaze in conditions nothing short of deadly.
Even while the death toll was rising, before families could walk on the charred remains of their family homes, Australia had to know what caused the Black Saturday Bushfires.
When events like these devastating fires happen, we immediately seek a simple solution. We want to know that we would have been safe were it not for a string of actions we somehow could have stopped, that we might protect ourselves in the future.
Arson is, to many of us, an unthinkable act. Therefore those who commit the crime are unimaginable. What would drive someone to do this? It’s easier for us to understand them as social anomalies, people so different from ourselves they’re almost beyond understanding.
Hooper digs so much deeper in The Arsonist to ask questions for which there is no easy answer. Was this arsonist a scapegoat? Did our fascination with his mind prevent us looking for the real reason so many people died: a climate in distress and a government clinging to the power of coal.
The Arsonist, like Bri Lee’s Eggshell Skull, is both distressing and necessary reading. Hooper painstakingly recreates a day which is seared into the memories of so many Australians with compassion. But she doesn’t shy away from examining our shared guilt in this tragedy.
Black Saturday and our fear of fire
Fire is a strange beast in Australia. The smallest spark can turn into a raging bushfire in minutes on those hot, dry, blustery days which are a staple of our summer months. On the worst days, a wind change could be the difference between life and death.
Most Australians have probably been warned about the dangers of carelessly flicking a cigarette butt into the bush, or using power tools during fire bans. We’ve seen the fire danger signs, heard warnings on the morning news.
Those living in suburbia or the city aren’t immune. We see the rising plumes of smoke blotting the sky in the distance, even if we’ve never had to pack a bushfire survival kit or decide if we’d risk our lives defending our home from an inferno.
Australia’s social history post-Colonisation is dotted with catastrophic bushfires. Some of the deadliest fires have been recorded in southern Australia, where the heat is dry and scorching with low humidity and strong winds.
In February 2009, southern Australian states recorded their worst first conditions: a deadly combination of scorching heat, low humidity and strong winds creating an oven-like atmosphere where even the smallest spark could become catastrophic. They did on February 7, 2009, when hundreds of fires burned across Victoria.
These fires became known as Black Saturday. They killed 173 people and injured 400. Over 2000 homes and 3000 structures were destroyed.
In The Arsonist, Hooper takes readers inside the firestorm. She strikes the right balance of horrendous, heartbreaking detail without straying into the gratuitous shock-factor. Even the bare facts of these deaths, and only two fires are explored in detail, are enough to make any reader’s heart heavy with grief and confusion. If you’ve personally been impacted by fire, though, this will potentially be triggering.
Australia isn’t the only country where arsonists deliberately light fires, but the statistics are alarming. Hooper explains 37% of bushfires are deemed suspicious, 13% lit by arsonists. A further 35% are accidental, with the remainder resulting from natural causes, re-ignition, and spot fires.
In The Arsonist, Hooper takes readers inside the mind of a criminal we are quick to condemn as evil to explain the complexities of fire-setting and the Black Saturday fires themselves.
Who was the arsonist?
On finishing The Arsonist, I’m still not entirely sure who the real criminal of this whole tragic story was. Brendan Sokaluk was charged with lighting two fires which killed 10 people. But 161 other people died in fires resulting from the abysmal maintenance of the state’s power grid.
Sokaluk lit the match, but is it actually our society that is to blame for creating a town reliant on the dirtiest coal-fired power station in Australia? A place where unemployment is a given and mental health issues go undiagnosed? He’s serving 17 years and nine months in prison, but what are our politicians doing to address the climate emergency which sets up the deadly conditions for these bushfires?
I don’t believe Sokaluk is innocent, but The Arsonist challenges every perception I held about the type of person, the type of criminal, who would light a fire.
Hooper paints a devastating picture of the Latrobe Valley in The Arsonist. It’s not dissimilar to the mining towns surrounding my hometown in Central Queensland, the places that live or die on the price of coal.
The Latrobe Valley just outside Melbourne was once the largest brown coal field where the government-owned electricity commission drove the state’s economy. Sokaluk grew up in the shadow of Hazelwood. That power station was finally closed two years ago with the unenviable mantel of being the nation’s highest polluting.
Hazelwood was still running in 2009, but with privatisation of the state’s electricity grid came redundancies and unemployment. How do you build a new life when coal is all you’ve ever known? Those who stayed in the Valley, maybe because it was where they’d always lived, were unemployed and watching their towns slowly die.
As Hooper explains in this article, policy around electricity and privatisation gave rise to both the lack of maintenance that sparked numerous accidental fires, and the declining social conditions that have been found to act as a breeding ground for arsonists.
“Arson is more likely to occur in communities where high unemployment meets the eucalypts, and arsonists tend to come from backgrounds of disadvantage, neglect and abuse,” Hooper wrote.
The Arsonist examines Sokaluk’s life in depth. On finishing the book I was still conflicted. Was he a villain or misunderstood? It seems Hooper herself still struggles with this question.
In an interview with the ABC, Hooper said there continued to be a “warring narrative” about Sokaluk. “On the one hand there was this [view of him as a] cunning serial offender, and on the other this hapless naif, caught up in events beyond his control. I think it’s entirely possible that both versions were true — that here was this man who was both cunning and naive, guileless and full of guile, innocent and a fiend.”
The complexity of crime and our social responsibility
I went into The Arsonist expecting to feel conflicted over the criminal intent of Sokaluk. I wasn’t familiar with the case, but I heard Hooper speak about the book at Word For Word festival, so I had some idea of the subject matter.
I’ve also reported on court for several years. I’ve sat through sentences for crimes we categorise as ‘evil’ or for which we condemn the perpetrator as overwhelmingly bad. What I learned is that it’s rarely that easy. Of course there are outliers like serial killers, but for the most part criminals are not inherently different.
When a magistrate or judge hands considers a sentence for any crime, be it drink driving or murder, they assess a range of mitigating factors. In higher courts, defence lawyers read out their client’s life story to explain what led to their crime.
I’ve sat in cases where a man’s abusive childhood led him to forming the drug habit for which he would eventually commit armed robbery. I’ve heard about a man who ran away from his alcoholic father to become a stockman and worked all over the world, but turned to credit card fraud when he was laid off with an injury after a car crash.
This doesn't excuse their actions. There are people who’ve been dealt a rough hand in life who haven’t turned to crime. But each of these cases (and The Arsonist) reminded me that everyone is human and we are all so much more than ‘good’ or ‘bad’.
Studies have shown the way we discuss crime matters. I think it’s easier for us to understand disasters like the Black Saturday fires when we can pin it on the evil actions of one person, rather than systematic failings of corporations and an over-reliance on coal driving a climate breakdown.
In a 2015 paper, University of Illinois-Chicago epidemiologist Gary Slutkin compared violence to contagious and infectious diseases. “Before discovering what was causing the epidemics of leprosy, plague, tuberculosis, cholera, and other infectious diseases, we frequently treated the people affected as “bad people”; we blamed them for their problem and in particular lamented their moral character.”
It’s much easier for us to believe Sokaluk was evil than to question the social situation in which his intellectual disabilities went undetected. It’s easier to believe all arsonists are beyond understanding than to examine why an arsonist is more likely to come from a background of disadvantage and neglect.
It’s easier to blame a bushfire on one person than to hold to account pro-coal politicians (who’ll happily bring a lump of the black stuff into Parliament House). These politicians will always spruik the short-term jobs fix over addressing our society’s reliance on fossil fuels and lack of effective climate change policy. It’s what wins votes in the end.
The Arsonist is an indictment on our society, on the way we turn our backs on ‘troubled’ communities and the way we buy into the simplistic pro- or anti-coal arguments of our major political parties.
There will surely always be arsonists and I’m still at a loss to understand why they make the decisions they do. But The Arsonist also highlights the truth of our climate breakdown, which will make severe bushfires more frequent in Australia.
The Arsonist is a compelling and nuanced examination of an issue so many people are quick to categorise as black and white. At times it reads like a thrilling police procedural, but then the truth of the harrowing loss of human life hits home again and you’re left feeling bereft for all involved, even the guilty.