Arson hearing

8 January 2009

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Australia — An accused fire bug travelled around the Latrobe Valley igniting three separate bushfires on a statewide total fire ban day, a court has heard.

Rosemary Ann Harris, 31, of Moe has pleaded not guilty to 12 arson-related charges connected to bushfires at Dean’s Track, Driffield, Blair Road, Tyers and Creamery Road, Yinnar and a house fire at 4 Murphy Crescent, Traralgon.

All the fires were allegedly lit on 14 December, 2006, while the house fire occurred earlier in the year on 12 August.

The Latrobe Valley Magistrates Court heard how an 11 year-old child witnessed both Ms Harris and a 15 year-old youth ignite the Tyers and Driffield bushfires.

The first of the bushfires lit in Wirilda Park, Tyers was started with the aid of cardboard beer carton and a lighter, according to the 11 year-old.

The child and the teenager were passengers in the vehicle driven by Ms Harris.

“We went to the bush… and through steep hills… and (the teenager) had a beer box and he ripped up the box and lit up the pieces of cardboard on fire and threw it out the window into the bush,” the child told the court.

While the child alleged only the teenager had lit the cardboard and threw it into the bush, another of the vehicle’s passengers, a nine year-old child claimed Ms Harris was also involved.

“(Ms Harris) lit the cardboard, she was holding it and throwing it out the window… she did it seven times,” the nine year-old told the court.”

The nine year-old explained how the teenager cut up the beer carton and piled the cardboard pieces next to Ms Harris as she drove.

The child said Ms Harris would then pick up the pieces, have the teenager ignite them and throw them out the driver’s side window.

However the teenager told the court he was “cleaning out the car” and “throwing out rubbish”, not lighting up cardboard.

The teenager said the group had driven out to the park searching for a lookout to see how close the Cooper’s Creek fires were to the region, not to light a fire.

Both children also claimed Ms Harris and the teenager teamed up to light another fire in the Driffield area.

While both the Wirilda Park and Driffield fires occurred on the same day, the children told the court they believed the events took place on separate days.

They said the teenager used fuel taken from a motorcycle to light a bushfire in a pine forest, along Dean’s Track in Driffield.

According to the children, Ms Harris and the teenager poured petrol from a milk carton onto old mattresses and chairs dumped along the track, then lit the rubbish.

“(The teenager) tipped the petrol out of the milk bottle while (Ms Harris) was following him, she was lighting it and (the teenager) was tipping it,” the nine year-old said.

According to the 11 year-old, only the teenager was involved in the lighting of the fire.

Two men Patrick Quinn and Chris Sheppard were travelling in a four-wheel-drive when they spotted Ms Harris and the teenager near the blazing pile of debris.

“(Ms Harris) started yelling `chuck the bottle’ and (the teenager) did,” the 11 year-old told the court.

Mr Quinn said while closing in on the car, he saw the teenager throw something “the size of a football” into the shrubs.

“He threw something white into the scrub and then they jumped into the car,” Mr Quinn told the court.

“They tried to back out and they kept trying to get out… but we drove up beside them and once we stopped they got out.”

When he asked Ms Harris and the teenager what they were doing, they said they had noticed the fire and had stopped to extinguish it, according to Mr Quinn.

A first lieutenant with the Morwell CFA and with decades of experience fighting fires, Mr Quinn told the court how the bushfire in question could not have been going for more than five minutes.

“It was taking off very quickly, I was very surprised… it was very recently lit and obviously someone had lit it,” he said.

Mr Quinn alleged that Ms Harris “wanted to get out of there” and attempted to leave “several times”.

He said Ms Harris tried to leave her details and car registration with him, however he insisted that she remain to provide eyewitness information to the police when they arrived.

Mr Quinn alleged the teenager was “excited and a little bit panicky” throughout the episode.

However the teenager, who previously pleaded guilty to charges related to the Driffield bushfire, told the court Ms Harris had taken him there for a driving lesson, not to cause a bushfire.

“(Ms Harris) told me to get fuel out of the motorbike for the car and after that I put some in the car and left the rest in the milk bottle, which I put down at my feet in the car,” the teenager said.

“While we were driving along the road (inside the pine forest) we saw a bunch of mattresses.”

The teenager told the court he noticed that a small fire had already been lit on one of the mattresses, with flames reaching heights of about six inches.

The teenager told Ms Harris to stop the car so he could go to the toilet but instead grabbed the milk bottle filled with petrol and tipped some of its contents onto the fire.

“(Ms Harris) yelled at me what I was doing and when I turned to see what she said I saw the ute (driven by Mr Quinn),” the teenager told the court.

The teenager told the court he threw the milk bottle into the bushes to “hide” what he was doing.

The teenager said he later told Mr Quinn and Mr Sheppard that they had spotted the fire and suspected it had been deliberately lit and were trying to put it out.

But Mr Sheppard told the court he was suspicious of the teenager and Ms Harris, who both seemed “agitated” by their arrival.

The hearing continues tomorrow.

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