Australia's wildfire crisis faces a new foe: Misinformation


Theories pinning the wildfires on arsonists gained traction in recent days after police in the state of New South Wales announced that 24 people have been charged with deliberately lighting fires since November.

But wildfire researchers say itís unreasonable to think the actions of two dozen possible offenders could have caused such destruction, with 20 million acres already scorched and more than 120 fires still active across southeastern Australia.

ďArson is a red herring,Ē said Mike Flannigan, director of the Canadian Partnership for Wildland Fire Science at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.

The politicization of climate change and the popularity of social media have provided fertile ground for misinformation. On Twitter, established networks of accounts seized on the arson claims, helping them trend on the platform.

Richie Merzian, director of the climate and energy program at the Australia Institute, a Canberra-based think tank that conducts public policy research, said the arson theories are being used to deflect from discussions of climate change.

ďThe number of arsonists this summer [is] not higher than usual ó the only thing that has changed is the disinformation campaign to elevate this as [a]key cause to explain the unprecedented bush fires,Ē Merzian said in an email.
Here's a fire service captain who has a little experience with fires: