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Australian Firefighters Continue to Battle Flames Threatening Sydney - 2001-12-30

As Australian firefighters continue to battle the arc of flames that threatens Sydney, a special police task force, formed to crack down on suspected arsonists, has begun to make headway. Eight people have been arrested so far, including a 22-year-old man, who has appeared in court, accused of lighting fires on vacant land to the northwest of Sydney.

For a sixth day, Australia's biggest city is almost lost in a thick, smoky haze, as fires rage to the north, south and west. Pollution levels have rocketed (increased drastically), and people with asthma are being urged to stay indoors.

Some flights into Sydney airport have been diverted, because of low visibility.

There are reports that poisonous snakes and spiders, escaping the flames in the bush, are moving into the suburbs.

The army and navy have joined the largest fire-fighting force ever seen here. Fifteen-thousand emergency personnel are now on the ground.

As Sydney continues to suffer, police are hunting down those responsible for setting some of the fires.

The authorities believe about 40 of the fires still burning across New South Wales were lit deliberately. Those responsible face up to 14 years in prison and hefty fines.

The state's deputy police commissioner, Ken Moroney, who is leading a special task force set up to catch suspected arsonists, said destructive behavior will not be tolerated. "By any test, these acts of arson are acts of sheer bastardry," he said. "Not only are they putting the lives of firefighters at risk, they are destroying the lives, the hopes, the wishes of ordinary Australian people. These eight people, detected thus far, have been detected by the police. The more recent incidents at Armidale also resulted in assaults upon police, and we as a community, are not going to tolerate that either, and so, each of these people will variously face court."

Arson is a difficult crime to investigate, because the evidence is mostly destroyed.

The police will be assisted by forensic psychologists, who believe there are six broad motives for arson, including excitement, revenge and crime concealment.

Australia's Bureau of Crime Statistics recorded more than six-thousand acts of arson last year, almost double the figure for 1995.