More than two dozen people have been charged in New South Wales, Australia for starting brush-fires as authorities continue their effort to crack down on suspected arsonists since the onset of what’s become a catastrophic wildfire season for the nation, according to reports.
Since November 8, New South Wales Police have taken legal action against 183 people for fire-related offenses, including 24 individuals who have been charged over deliberately-lit bushfires – a crime punishable by up to 21 years in prison.
Speaking to reporters Monday, Police and Emergency Services Minister David Elliot said that three additional people have been charged with looting in areas affected by brush fires in New South Wales’ South Coast region.
“For anybody — regardless of their age or mental state – who wants to take advantage of their fellow citizens’ disadvantage, they should expect full force of the law,” Elliot said in a press conference. “I share the premier’s horror and the police’s horror at someone wanting to go and loot the home of an individual or a family who’ve potentially lost everything.”
Thousands of firefighters continue to battle the blazes that have burned millions of acres in New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia, an area twice the size of Maryland. Nationwide, at least 25 people have been killed and 2,000 homes destroyed by the blazes, while hundreds of millions of animals are believed to have perished.
In New South Wales alone, the fires have killed nearly 500 million birds, reptiles and mammals, Sydney University ecologist Chris Dickman told the Sydney Morning Herald.
Detectives from the Financial Crimes Squad’s Arson Unit have been working with local police to investigate the cause, origin and impact of fires since the latest State of Emergency was declared last Thursday, according to the press release. An initiative in New South Wales – dubbed Strike Force Tronto – has also lead to legal action against 53 people for allegedly failing to comply with a total fire ban and 47 people for allegedly “discarding a lighted cigarette or match on land.”
Celebrities and politicians have taken to social media to raise money for firefighters across Australian battling the blaze. Chris, Luke and Liam Hemsworth – who are from Melbourne – announced on Instagram that they were pledging $1 million to the effort. Australian actress Nicole Kidman and her husband, country singer Keith Urban donated $500,000 to the New South Wales Rural Fire Service. And Pink also donated $500,000 to firefighters in the country, as well as shared links to local agencies accepting contributions.
Australians know to expect summer wildfires. But the blazes arrived early this year, fed by drought and the country’s hottest and driest year on record. Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced Saturday that he would dispatch 3,000 army, navy and air force reservists to help battle the fires and commit $14 million, in US dollars, to lease fire-fighting aircraft from overseas.
But the moves did little to tamp down the criticism that he had been slow to act, even as he has downplayed the need for his government to address climate change. As of dawn Sunday, the New South Wales Rural Fire Service said 150 fires were active in the state, 64 of them uncontrolled.