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Australia Confronts Arson as Bushfires Burn

FILE - A fire rages in Bobin, 350km north of Sydney, Nov. 9, 2019.
FILE - A fire rages in Bobin, 350km north of Sydney, Nov. 9, 2019.

A volunteer firefighter in Australia has been accused of arson following an unprecedented bushfire crisis.

Fire chiefs say the alleged arson south of Sydney was the “ultimate betrayal” of emergency crews risking their lives on the front line. They said the accusations could tarnish the reputation of the entire service. Investigators believe the teenage suspect lit the blazes and then later returned as part of his duties as a volunteer firefighter.

Dozens of fires continue to burn in the states of Queensland and New South Wales, where more than 50 people have been charged with arson since August. Another 150 suspects are being interviewed by investigators.

More than 2 million hectares of land, including vast areas of forest, have been scorched in eastern Australia’s bushfire crisis. Hundreds of homes have been destroyed, and six people have died.

The Australian Institute of Criminology has estimated that around half of the nation’s bushfires are either arson or suspected arson.

Most offenders are male. Many are children. Some have been the victims of sexual or physical abuse, while much work has been done to explore the motivations of adult firebugs.

"Usually they are marginalized, they are confused. It is thought that they have very low intelligence, but I suspect that that is only because we are catching the ones that have low intelligence," said Paul Reid, a criminologist at Monash University. "They tend to have deep depression, and (are) very socially awkward. They usually have a history of drug use and violence."

Arsonists are responsible for thousands of bushfires in Australia every year and they can face long jail terms if found guilty. Convictions are rare, though, because evidence is often destroyed by the fire and there are few, if any, witnesses.