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Incomprehensible arson destroying much of Australia



Published: Mon, January 7, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



The black Christmas of smoke, soot and ash that choked Sydney, Australia, and hundreds of square miles of the Australian countryside has become an even blacker New Year as more than 100 fires -- many set intentionally -- continue their rampage. No American forest fire has ever come close to the conflagration Australia is now experiencing. The environmental and personal catastrophe that arsonists have wrought screams out for the strongest possible punishment. At the same time, we must hope and pray that the fires are brought under control so that no more Australian people suffer the loss of their homes, communities and crops and that no further wildlife is destroyed.

Authorities with the Australian Koala Foundation believe that among thousands of animals and birds lost, many thousands of koalas have already been killed or injured in the fires that have ravaged the koala's habitat. The tall eucalyptus trees where the cuddly marsupials make their homes have a high oil content. After weeks without rainfall, the dry trees have been consumed by flames sometimes more than 100 feet above the ground.

Fire has been an element of Australia's ecology for millions of years, but human intervention over the past 200 years -- clearing areas for agriculture and community development has resulted in fires of increasing intensity and danger every 10 years or so.

Arson: But the latest rage of fires owes even more to human causes. While lightning has ignited perhaps half of the blazes, the remainder is the work of arsonists. And of the two dozen individuals arrested thus far on suspicion of starting the fires, more than half are juveniles -- one of the suspects is nine years old. And the apparent reason these firebugs have been torching the resources of their nation? Boredom.

With not enough to do during their summer vacation -- "down under" the seasons are opposite those in the Northern Hemisphere -- some 15 child pyromaniacs have been among those responsible for destroying 1.2 million of acres of bush and hundreds of homes, forcing thousands to evacuate their communities and generating massive smoke clouds that have reached New Zealand, 1,400 miles east across the Tasman Sea.

Miraculously, no one has been killed.

The government of New South Wales has promised to punish arsonists, The maximum penalty for adult offenders is 14 years in prison but state Premier Bob Carr -- the premier is equivalent to a U.S. state's governor -- said, "Any youngster nabbed lighting a fire will not get off with a warning from a judge."

Carr said arsonists who are not sent to juvenile institutions would be required to meet burn victims and people who have suffered because of the fires. & quot;I think it would so traumatic they would never do it again. & quot;

Unfortunately, future punishment cannot stem present misery. At best, playing with matches might burn young fingers with an immediate lesson taught and learned. At worst, the "play" becomes tragedy, for which no lesson, no apology, no retribution will ever be enough.




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