Australia — Detectives investigating the deadly Marysville Black Saturday fires have angrily denied reports this week that they are close to arresting a member of the Country Fire Authority (CFA).
Taskforce Phoenix Superintendent Paul Hollowood said such speculation was not helpful and unfairly tarnished the CFA.
It was widely reported this week that taskforce detectives were confident of soon arresting the volunteer – who had already been questioned and released – over the February 7 fires that left 38 people dead and thousands homeless in the area, suggesting the information had been leaked.
The reports also suggested the Office of Public Prosecutions told police to build a stronger case.
Supt Hollowood denied that was the case on Saturday from Yea, northeast of Melbourne, where Taskforce Phoenix set up an information caravan for people to speak to them, including anyone who had been in the vicinity of the abandoned Murrindindi sawmill on Black Saturday or other areas around Wilhelmina Falls Road.
“Whenever I hear about any sort of speculation out there that we’re about to arrest people it really is upsetting and I think it’s upsetting for the community as well,” he told reporters.
“We noticed this in the early days during the bushfires. Rumours were always rife that whenever police were talking to people then automatically we were going to be charging someone.
“It’s just not very helpful at the end of the day in terms of what we’re doing.
“CFA volunteers perform such a great role in the community. There’s 60,000 people out there who put themselves in harm’s way to help us and this type of speculation doesn’t help in terms of the reputation of firefighters and all people who volunteered to come forward during the fire.”
Taskforce Phoenix detectives told AAP they did not believe any leaking of information about an imminent arrest came from within the taskforce.
CFA chief executive Neil Bibby said this week its volunteers undergo criminal police checks and probation periods but not psychological profiling.
The CFA came under fire after Black Saturday from career firefighters who accused it of not using up to 1,200 professional CFA and Metropolitan Fire Brigade firefighters to battle the fires.
The only person charged so far with lighting fires on Black Saturday is Brendan Sokaluk, 39, who is accused of lighting a fire in Churchill that claimed the lives of 11 people.
Supt Hollowood said the information caravan used at Yea on Saturday had been useful but it might be the last time it was used as people’s memories of Black Saturday – which resulted in the deaths of 173 people around Victoria – were inevitably fading.
He also said anyone arrested over the fires potentially faced charges of arson causing death – which carries a maximum 25 years in jail – or manslaughter and death, with the state attorneys-general meeting in Canberra also currently considering a new law that would compel people convicted of lighting bushfires to pay compensation to victims.