Arson offenders, you are on notice. That’s the message from police conducting an operation which targets known firebugs during bushfire season.
Police have taken a proactive approach to deliberate fires, speaking to a list of local arson suspects and giving them a stern warning at the start of fire season.
The approach is part of Strike Force Tronto, which was formed in 2001 in response to suspicious fires which led to death, injury or significant property loss.
A fire that broke out at Richmond Vale last week exemplified the effects of an ignition on high fire danger days.
High temperatures combined with dry conditions allowed the blaze to spread rapidly last Wednesday.
More than 200 firefighters, assisted by multiple water-bombing aircraft, were called in to battle the 800 hectare inferno which threatened homes and forced the closure of Leggetts Drive.
Police are still investigating the blaze, but believe it was deliberately lit.
There are a number of people on the arson watchlist in the local area.
Cessnock is one of the worst areas in the state for arson offences, with 194 incidents recorded in the 12 months to June 2017.
That equated to a rate of 347.3 per 100,000 people – the sixth worst in NSW.
Maitland’s arson rate was also almost double the state average.
To target offenders, Strike Force Tronto detectives work closely with local police and fire investigators.
The strike force also includes intelligence-based strategies which aim to reduce the incidence of deliberately lit fires.
Central Hunter acting crime manager Detective Sergeant Mitch Dubojski said arson offenders who were caught would be “dealt with harshly”.
Property Crime Squad Commander Detective Superintendent Murray Chapman said not only was deliberately lighting a bushfire illegal, it could be deadly.
“Police and fire fighters will be proactively targeting anyone who puts the safety of the community at risk this summer,” he said.
“There are thousands of volunteers, brave men and women, who risk their lives each year to keep the community safe from the ravages of bushfires. The last thing they need is for someone to deliberately light a fire which endangers lives.
“Each season we are encouraged by the support we receive from the community, who regularly report suspicious behaviour which has, in some circumstances, prevented catastrophic events.”
Above 30 degree days are on the way this weekend, meaning the fire danger rating is expected to be elevated.
Lower Hunter Rural Fire Service acting manager Inspector Martin Siemsen urged people to be prepared and minimise fire activity.
“We’re seeing extra dry conditions where fires will potentially spread very quickly,” he said.
Inspector Siemsen said people should also have a bushfire survival plan in place which includes decisions to make in the case of a fire, and when to make them.