On the scorching February day in 2009 that became known as Black Saturday, a man lit two fires in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley, then sat on the roof of his house to watch the inferno. In the Valley, where the rates of crime were the highest in the state, more than thirty people were known to police as firebugs. But the detectives soon found themselves on the trail of a man they didn’t know.
The Arsonist takes readers on the hunt for this man, and inside the strange puzzle of his mind. It is also the story of fire in this country, and of a community that owed its existence to that very element. The command of fire has defined and sustained us as a species – understanding its abuse will define our future.
A powerful real-life thriller written with Hooper’s trademark lyric detail and nuance, The Arsonist is a reminder that in an age of fire, all of us are gatekeepers.
The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire by Chloe Hooper was a fascinating investigation into what happened one very hot, windy Sunday in February 2009.
Starting with the Arson Squad and their incredible ability to pinpoint the starting point/s of the fire within an eight square metre section, Hooper details the progress of the fire, it’s effects on individuals and the later findings of the Royal Commission into the tragic blaze.
This blaze had been so intense the aftermath was like stepping into a textbook on wildfire investigation. Heat was rising off the burnt trees and smoke hung low around the boughs….
Fire is a strange craftsman. It can bevel branches, blunting the wood on the origin side and tapering it back as it advances; it can ‘crocodile’ a tree’s bough, leaving charcoal scales on the point of impact. White ash is the hallmark of complete combustion, and objects directly hit may appear lighter….
Rocks and larger trees often shield finer fuels, such as twigs…the scorch pattern on a tree trunk facing the fire’s origin was low, whereas there was a steep angle to the burn mark on the sides and back of the trunk as the flames leapt forward.
173 people died during the blaze, the worst bush fire in modern Australian history. It is easy to understand the frustration of fire scientists who see the public continuing to dump rubbish in the bush, with no understanding that,
their own future was intricately connected to the forests’ health. That was what no one seemed to have learnt from Black Sunday. Fire science wasn’t some obscure area of academia, it was intrinsic to our understanding of the country and our safety within it.
Some of the personal stories were harrowing to read, while the facts, figures and logic used by the various detectives were compelling. Hooper takes the time to get know the back stories for some of the detectives, the lawyers as well as the arsonist and his family. And in Helen Garner-esque style, she leads the reader towards feelings of compassion for the arsonist and his family –
fire-setters were more often than not male; they were commonly unemployed, or had a complicated work history; they were likely to have disadvantaged social backgrounds, often with a family history of pathology, addiction and physical abuse; and many exhibited poor social or interpersonal skills.
Hooper herself, was in central Victoria the day the bush fires raged and but for the luck of the wind, was spared direct contact with it. The images from that day, have left permanent scars on all of us who witnessed them via our TV screens. The scars left on those who survived that day are brought to light and honoured in Hooper’s investigation.