PHOTO at right: Hazard abatement burning shown to Alice Springs media this week.
By ERWIN CHLANDA
A burnt match, a footprint, a tyre tread will be the kind of forensic items arson investigators will be looking for, says Dave Letheby, District Fire Officer Southern Region (pictured).
They will first pinpoint where the fire started – one of the skills the nine unpaid volunteers will learn in a two-day course next week.
If they find suspicious evidence they will pass it on to the team of four salaried arson investigators from the NT Fire and Rescue Service (NTFRS) in The Centre.
Four of the volunteers are from Bushfires NT, four from the Alice Springs Rural Fire Service and one from Tennant Creek.
This force was assembled after last year’s catastrophic wildfires in the NT which burned an area twice the size of Tasmania. It only gets as bad as this every 40 to 50 years. As much as 80% was deliberately lit.
“The public are our eyes and ears,” says Mr Letheby. “Stopping and catching arsonists is a priority for us.”
He says firebugs strike where and when they can cause the maximum damage, usually on hot and windy days.
“Our team will be very visible. We will disrupt the actions of arsonists, catch them and prosecute them,” Mr Letheby says.
“Arsonists operate on a pattern,” says Chief Fire Officer Steve Rothwell, and the new initiative “will break that pattern down”.
He says it’s part of the national initiative to stop firebugs: if someone dies in a fire deliberately lit, the arsonist will now be tried for murder.Around the nation, some 30,000 fires a year are deliberately lit, at a cost to the community of $1.6b.
An arsonist’s usual profile is being male, in the 25 to 30 age bracket, with a low socio-economic background, and “maybe a bit of a disturbed background,” says Mr Rothwell.
NTFRS looks after the Alice municipal area – about 5km up the north Stuart Highway; to the airport boundary in the south; Honeymoon Gap to the west and to the eastern edge of the rural residential area along the Ross Highway.
It is also responsible for Elliott, Tennant Creek and Yulara.
Outside that area Bushfires NT are in charge, and the two are closely working together.
The volunteer investigators “are known in the community, part of the community, they will actually go out and investigate the fires.”
The system will need the public’s help, with information such as rego numbers and descriptions of vehicles and suspects.
The question begs whether the campaign, whose motto is “if you see something, know something, then say something,” has a bark that is worse than its bite.
Asked how many arsonists were prosecuted last year, Mr Rothwell said there were “a few prosecutions last year. Bushfire arson is a hard crime to detect. Those who were prosecuted were put on good behaviour bonds.”
Mr Letheby says the West Macs, where fire has already been raging in the past few weeks, are likely to have an “average season because that got burned fairly hard last year”.
Hazard abatement activities are being or have been carried out around the main population centres, and there are two more Bushfires vehicles in The Centre than last year.
Mr Letheby took up his position here in March but has worked and lived in The Alice intermittently since 1983, over a total of eight years.
He says he’s been a “firie” since 1973 when he was a volunteer in the Adelaide Hills.
(Mr Letheby says he will provide the Alice News with details of arson prosecutions last year. We have asked the police whether the person driving a car on its rims, the sparks setting alight some 40 square kilometers of the West MacDonnell National Park, will be prosecuted.)