Australia — Serial arsonists have been going unchecked after a task force set up to keep track of firebugs was disbanded, The Daily Telegraph can reveal.
While the Rural Fire Service believes a number of the weekend’s destructive blazes were deliberately lit, a database of hundreds of arsonists across the state has been lying idle since Strike Force Tronto was wound up for good last year.
In a swift reaction to our revelations this morning, NSW Police minister Carl Scully has announced that the elite trike force is to be reformed.
He made the pledge at 7am. Later he added: “We need to respond to (Rural Fire Service Commissioner) Phil Koperberg’s advice. He thinks there’s a few maniacs out there lighting fires.”
He said Police Commissioner Ken Moroney had “acted responsibly” by reinstating the police team.
“He’ll be setting this strike force up,” Mr Scully said.
“We’ll be dealing with these crooks. There’s a police cell waiting for them.”
Discussing the dissolution of Tronto yesterday, Fire Brigade Employees Union secretary Simon Flynn has accused police of dropping the ball on the arsonists’ database.
“It’s a real worry. We were never informed,” Mr Flynn said.
Four houses were razed near Picton in southwest Sydney and three more were destroyed near Cattai, in the city’s northwest, when more than 50 bushfires, fuelled by hot, windy, weather, swept across NSW on Sunday.
Rural Fire Service Commissioner Phil Koperberg has confirmed a fire in Wyong, which started on Saturday, was deliberately lit.
Commenting about the 55 fires scattered across NSW, Mr Koperberg said: “Without wanting to pre-empt the investigations, you will find the majority were due to either fallen powerlines or mishap of one description or another.
“But a significant number would nevertheless have been deliberately lit.”
Suspicion still surrounds the fires in the Cattai area and near Thirlmere, in the southwest.
However, Rural Fire Service fire investigation manager Richard Woods it was likely sparking powerlines caused the Thirlmere blazes.
Mr Koperberg said claims a botched hazard reduction on a property near South Maroota could have started one of the fires that destroyed houses in were being investigated.
A major role of Strike Force Tronto was to keep track of serial arsonists and its surveillance operations led to over 50 arrests 11 of which were RFS volunteers
Opposition Leader Peter Debnam said he shared the firefighters’ concerns about the group being disbanded.
“We are about to face the most dangerous bushfire season for years and to have shut down that strike force is a betrayal of the community,” Mr Debnam said yesterday.
Mr Moroney had said he would reinstate the strike force if serial arsonists are to blame for the latest fires.
But one senior police source said the problem was that no one was keeping one step ahead of the fire bugs.
“No one is monitoring them. There are no designated experienced investigators proactively out there trying to catch the arsonists,” the source said.
Strike Force Tronto, which had 35 designated officers, was set up during the fires of Black Christmas 2001, the last time the police and RFS were caught short with no adequate response to a bushfire crisis.
Tronto officers probed every one of the 1800 blazes over the next four years, building up unprecedented intelligence that showed at least a quarter of the fires were deliberately lit.
Retired assistant commissioner John Laycock, who headed Tronto, yesterday refused to be drawn on whether it was wrong for the NSW Police to disband it.