Arsonists keep Sydney ablaze
By Grant Holloway|CNN
SYDNEY, Australia (CNN) -- Despite marginally improved weather conditions in Sydney, fire danger in and around the beleaguered city remains extreme as police hunt up to three suspected serial arsonists.
While state police have arrested 20 people so far on arson offenses, authorities admit they have not caught any suspects relating to up to 40 of the major blazes which have engulfed the state of New South Wales for the past 11 days.
Police said fire-making devices had been found at the scene of two of the most recent infernos, including Tuesday's blaze which began in Pennant Hills Park in the heart of Sydney's leafy northern suburbs.
That fire, which spread to within 10 kilometers (six miles) of Sydney's central business district, is now close to being brought under control and fears that it will spread to the 600 hectare Lane Cove National Park have eased.
Sydney, a city of 4 million people, is the commercial capital of Australia. It is renowned not only for its picturesque harbor, but also the extensive native bush parklands that punctuate the city's suburbs and fringe districts.
While temperatures are cooler and easterly winds are bringing moister air to Sydney Thursday, the major concern continues to be the spate of unexplained new fires which spring up each day.
Of six new fires which began on Wednesday, four are believed to have been the work of firebugs.
State police have set up a 35-strong "strike force" to help apprehend the arsonists, a task it expects to take many months.
"As the bush fires continue across NSW, our priority is to apprehend those responsible for setting these fires," the strike force's Commander John Laycock said.
"While it is inappropriate to discuss individual cases, it is encouraging to see public and community being alert to such an extent that a significant number of people have actually been caught in the act of lighting fires or shortly thereafter."
Of the people arrested so far, 14 have been juveniles, including two boys aged just 9 and 10.
Many of those arrested so far have been initially apprehended by members of the public who saw them acting suspiciously in the vicinity of new fires.
As public anger over the arson grows, the premier of NSW, Bob Carr, said Wednesday that the young offenders should have their "noses rubbed in the ashes they've caused".
Rather than jail the young offenders, Carr suggested the offenders be forced to meet the victims of their crimes, especially those people who had lost their houses.
The maximum penalty for adult arson offenders in Australia is 14 years imprisonment.
Although the weather has provided the first good news in many days, fire officials warn the situation remains extremely dangerous.
Overnight more than 5,000 people were forced to take shelter on a beach at the vacation resort of Sussex Inlet, to the south of Sydney, as a fire there unexpectedly changed direction.
Up to 20 properties may have been destroyed by that fire, adding to the 150 homes already razed by the infernos and pushing the state's insurance damages bill to around $40 million (Aust $75 million).
New fires are also burning in the Blue Mountains region to the west of Sydney, but are not as yet threatening property.
Remarkably, there has been no loss of life so far and most injuries have been caused by smoke inhalation.
About 80 fires are still burning across NSW, with the firefront estimated at 2,000 kilometers (1,400 miles).
With more than half a million hectares (1.24 million acres) of bush destroyed, the fires are the most prolonged and destructive in Australia since the Ash Wednesday conflagration of 1983 that claimed 72 lives
NSW State Fire Commissioner Phil Koperberg said all existing resources were now being directed towards containment of the fires rather than putting them out.
That task was "some distance in the future, unless it rains".
However Koperberg said that while there was still no rain forecast for the next three days, he was more optimistic now than at any time over the past week.
Australia's dry summers and vast tracts of combustible eucalyptus forest make bush fires a frequent event, but the expansion of city suburbs into native bush areas over the past few decades has increased the damaging impact of the infernos.
Wildlife hit hard
December 27, 2001
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