On February 7, 2009, following 12 years of drought, and on a day when temperatures soared to 45 degrees, bushfires burned across the state of Victoria. The fires, of unprecedented ferocity, killed 173 people, injured hundreds more, and a million animals perished in the flames as well. The fires reduced 3500 buildings, 2000 of them people’s homes, to char and rubble. One of the worst-affected areas was Central Gippsland, where the fire began in a eucalypt plantation outside the town of Churchill and burned through 26,000 hectares.
The Tall Man: Death and Life on Palm Island, Chloe Hooper’s searing account of the death in custody of Cameron Doomadgee, won her a Walkley. In The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire, Hooper turns her forensic attention to the Churchill fires. She begins her narrative on the heels of the police investigators picking their way through the still-smouldering bush to find the source of the fire. As in all her work, Hooper brings every person she writes about to life: arson chemist George Xydias, for example, with his “slightly hunched shoulders and a slant to his neck as if from his many years of looking for clues in ashes and rubble”. She writes of Xydias that he “had been to so many scorched crime scenes he could smell what type of vegetation or building material had just been incinerated, and even … the percentage of evaporated fuel sometimes left behind”.
Among the clues the team followed was the appearance of the long narrow leaves of burnt eucalypts, whipped horizontal and crisped into place by fiery winds, “like thousands of fingers pointing the way the fire had gone”. In the “area of confidence” where the investigators determined the fire had started, they found none of the usual arsonist’s kit of party sparklers or mosquito coils, but there was no other logical explanation for the fire either: no power lines downed, no self-igniting materials. The pointy fingers of circumstantial evidence, gossip and blame, however, led them to their prime suspect, Brendan Sokaluk. Sokaluk was an intellectually and emotionally stunted individual, not yet 40. He was a confounding and often infuriating character who, despite his worried parents’ best efforts to protect him, had been bullied all his life. He had learnt, it appeared, to bully right back. By his own admission, he’d been on the scene around the time the fires began, and he told a story of dropping a cigarette onto a serviette in his car that he then flicked out the window in panic. He’d even called in the resulting fire – not an uncommon act, apparently, among arsonists. That story, of accidental fire lighting, didn’t accord with the physical evidence. And if his face or voice betrayed any emotion, it seemed closer to fear than remorse.
“Fire,” as Hooper writes, “is a strange craftsman.” The closer you get to the site where a fire started, the more chaotic the evidence. At the time of ignition, the wind has yet to settle on its direction; the burnt leaves point every which way. The more Hooper looked into the character, actions and apparent motivations of Sokaluk, the harder it seemed to pin them down. Was he an innocent and frustrated naif, as his parents believed, or a man of ill-intent and animal cunning, as his co-workers in a gardening team concluded following multiple acts of sly aggression?
The families of the dead, the people made homeless by the fire, the victims who would bear the trauma for the rest of their lives in their bodies and psyches needed justice. Some wanted revenge. Churchill became a tinderbox of emotions as the investigation wore on and finally, Sokaluk was brought to trial.
The Arsonist is such an evocative reconstruction of events that the reader feels viscerally transported to the field of ash and embers trod by the arson detectives, into the prison rooms where legal aid barrister Selena McCrickard struggles to win Sokaluk’s trust and confidence, and finally, the charged courtroom where his fate will be decided. If the police and firefighters are regarded as heroes, Sokaluk’s legal team are virtual pariahs. McCrickard and her colleagues keep in mind that intellectually disabled people often confess to crimes they haven’t committed. They must steel themselves against hatred directed at them personally from a community in pain.
Gripping, gritty and unsparing but never gratuitous in its details, this is true crime writing at its best. But Hooper goes beyond the procedurals and the scene setting to examine the greater context of the tragedy. There are several layers to this. The first is the depressed socioeconomic landscape of the Latrobe Valley, born of, tied to and ultimately devastated by coalmining and fossil-fuel-based energy production and its privatisation. The community to which Sokaluk belonged suffered from general disadvantage, poor air quality and health, and second-rate educational opportunities. What’s more, writes Hooper, it had “no old people, no history, and no long-running feuds, but also no deep-rooted connections”. People tended to distrust authority, whether that of local governments or power companies or the anti-fossil-fuel environmentalists in the cities who, as they saw it, wanted to shut down their already dwindling opportunities for employment. Odd and often unpleasant, Sokaluk became a lightning rod for their fury, even before trial and conviction. Yet for all the horror of arson, the fact remains that across Victoria, on Black Saturday, “the majority of people died in fires caused by failures in a privatised electricity grid with inadequate safety standards and regulatory checks”.
Fire is central to the history of humankind: we harness it to cook, keep warm, to generate the power that underpins much of our lives. Indigenous Australians traditionally managed the land with fire so skilfully that they fostered diversity in flora and fauna, providing abundant food and avoiding catastrophic blazes. But today, Hooper notes, “we have too much of the wrong kind of fire”. Burning coal fans climate change and climate change fans wildfires – and there will always be arsonists to fan these. Welcome to the fire age. CG
Hamish Hamilton, 272pp, $34.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 20, 2018 as "The Arsonist, Chloe Hooper". Subscribe here.