What Does the Law Say About Lighting Bushfires?

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The annual bushfire season in Australia is well-underway, and with temperatures around the country once again reaching extremes, emergency services have had a lot on their plate.

South Australia in particular has been devastated by bushfires in the scenic Adelaide Hills region, with several people tragically losing their homes and belongings, and wildlife in the area being affected.

Fires have also ripped through bushland in Western Australia, wreaking havoc and threatening homes.

While bushfires are often a natural occurrence in hot, dry countries such as Australia, many are deliberately lit by arsonists each year.

In fact, the Centre for Arson Research estimates that one-third of all fires around Australia are lit deliberately.

Ellenbrook, a suburb north of Perth, was threatened by fires earlier this week.

Police now believe that the fires were deliberately lit and have offered rewards of up to $50,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible.

Because of the devastating consequences of bushfires, and the threats that they pose to human life, wildlife and property, arsonists are treated seriously under the law.

What does the law say about lighting bushfires?

Under the Crimes Act 1900 (NSW), there is a specific offence for causing bushfires.

Section 203E makes it an offence to intentionally cause a fire, and act recklessly as to the spread of the fire to vegetation on public land, or another person’s private property.

There is, however, a defence if you were a firefighter and you started the fire as part of hazard reduction or bushfire fighting operations, for example, back-burning.

The maximum penalty is 14 years’ imprisonment.

If you’re alleged to have deliberately lit a fire, you could also face charges under the Rural Fires Act 1997 (NSW).

Section 100 of that Act makes it an offence to set fire to public land or land belonging to another person, or for a land owner to allow a fire to escape from their own property where it would likely cause injury to another person or property.

If you are found guilty, you could face up to 5 years’ imprisonment and/or a fine of $110,000.

If you are guilty, the factors that may influence the type of penalty imposed include the extent of damage caused to persons or property, and whether a total fire ban was in place at the time.

If you knew that there was a total fire ban in place but deliberately lit a fire regardless, you could face a higher penalty of up to $132,000 or 7 years’ imprisonment.

There are also various provisions dealing with destroying property using fire and explosives and maliciously destroying property with the intention of endangering life.

Young People and Fires

Several serious bushfires over the past few years have been started by young people.

Last summer, two young boys aged 11 and 15 were charged with starting a fire at Heatherbrae, near Port Stephens, which went on to destroy 8 buildings.

A further 12 buildings were also damaged in the blaze.

In a separate incident, two girls aged 12 and 13 were charged after allegedly starting a grass fire.

And just recently, a 15-year-old boy was charged with starting a bushfire in Geraldton in Western Australia.

It is estimated that around 40% of all illegal first are started by youths, however many children are not formally prosecuted by courts because of their age or the trivial nature of the fire.

Professionals believe that the high incidence of arson amongst young people is largely attributable to a lack of understanding of the possible consequences, as well as boredom, particularly in rural areas.

In an attempt to raise awareness about the damaging consequences of arson, fire services around the country run juvenile arson intervention programs.

In New South Wales, the Intervention and Fire Awareness Program is run by New South Wales Fire Brigades.

Parents can also play a key role in preventing arson by educating children about the devastating consequences of bushfires, and by keeping a close eye on their kids.

The summer season is not yet over, and fire fighters will no doubt be kept busy in the coming weeks, however we can all play a role in fire prevention by educating our peers and children about the dangers of lighting fires.

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About Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim is an Accredited Specialist Criminal Lawyer and Principal at Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Sydney’s Leading Firm of Criminal & Traffic Defence Lawyers.

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