Pointing the finger: bushfires, blame, and Chloe Hooper’s The Arsonist


When there is a large-scale crisis in our community, many of us are compelled to look for a reason.


What caused this catastrophe? How could it have been prevented? What can we do as we attempt to move forward? How can we make sure this doesn’t happen again?


The devastating bushfires that have covered so much of Australia in recent weeks, particularly across New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia, have been astonishing in scale. While loss of life has been low so far (26 people, at the time of writing), almost two thousand homes have been lost and countless properties decimated. The scale of the harm caused to animal and plant life is enormous. Experts estimate that as many as one billion animals and birds may have been affected by the fires so far.


This week, many Australians have returned back to work after a break of Christmas and New Year’s. In my own workplace, the fires are a frequent topic of discussion. We’re all asking those hard questions, searching for a reason and a fix.


These discussions and reflections have brought to mind Chloe Hooper’s The Arsonist, which I read last year. The book is a compelling, thoroughly researched piece of non-fiction centred on two fires in the Latrobe Valley area in February 2009. The Black Saturday bushfires, of which the Latrobe fires were part, killed 173 people in regional Victoria. While arson was thought to be a cause of many of these deadly fires, only one man was ultimately charged with the crime—Brendan Sokaluk, a 42-year-old local man, was accused of deliberately lighting two fires near Churchill, a small town in the Latrobe Valley.


With the pace of a thriller, The Arsonist moves through the investigation into Sokaluk, switching from the perspective of police and prosecutors, to the lawyers defending him, to local townspeople. Hooper gives reasons for the reader to feel sympathy and compassion for Sokaluk, a bullied man with a late autism diagnosis and potential intellectual challenges. But she does not shy away from explaining the damage caused by the fires and the toll they took on the community, nor the circumstances that made police believe he was guilty. Sokaluk was eventually found guilty of 10 counts of arson causing death and was sentenced to 17 years and nine months in jail.


The Arsonist is an incredibly detailed, even-handed account of the investigation, as well as a moving portrait of a struggling rural town. In this book, Hooper explores the big questions I posed at the beginning of this article, but she doesn’t seek to offer neat solutions. Instead, she presents what she finds, without judgement, and lets her readers draw their own conclusions.


There are many factors that have influenced the wide and uncontrollable spread of the recent bushfires, with climate change the major one. It is difficult to know what to do next and where to apportion blame. We can, and should, condemn the government for not taking action on this issue, for not doing better or acting earlier. But there is no neat solution, no single person we can blame for these fires—or, at least, no one we can charge and sentence for the crimes.


In The Arsonist, the reader sees how being able to blame a person for the deaths and damage caused by the Latrobe Valley fires had a unifying effect on the community. It is much simpler to blame an individual than it is to untangle issues like climate change, corporate responsibility or land management—all contributing factors in both the Black Saturday fires and those we face now.


Feelings of anger and hopelessness and despair are apparent in every discussion I’ve had about the fires with friends and family. Many are grieving lost lives and homes. We don’t want this to happen again. We don’t want this to be our future. But how do we move forward and make effective change? These are questions for which we don’t have any easy answers.

One thing that has been heartening in this crisis is the way communities have rallied together to support Australians affected by these fires. People are giving what they can, large or small, to support our volunteer firefighters and the people who have lost their homes, properties and livelihoods.


There are a number of organisations accepting donations as they deal with the fires – the various state fire services (to support volunteer firefighters), organisations like the Red Cross and Salvation Army (to support those who have had to evacuate or have lost their homes), and wildlife services (to support animals that have been injured or displaced). The handiest list of links I’ve been able to find was actually shared by Chris Hemsworth when he announced that he and his family would be donating $1 million (most swoonworthy thing he’s ever done, I reckon). The list is online here


There are a number of crowdfunds that have been set up, but some have been proven to be scams. One crowdfund worth checking out is the Fire Relief Fund for First Nations Communities started by Yorta Yorta poet and musician Neil Morris on GoFundMe here




Buy The Arsonist here.