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Bushfires and Criminal Law

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January 25, 2016

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The past few months dry conditions, scorching temperatures and loss of homes to bushfire serve as a timely reminder of the strict penalties that apply for fire-related offences in Victoria.

Police interviewed a 47-year-old man in relation to the Scotsburn fire near Ballarat which destroyed 12 homes, although the ABC reports that suspicions the fire was deliberately lit have since been ruled out.

In Victoria, it is an offence under the Crimes Act 1958 to intentionally or recklessly cause a bushfire. The maximum penalty is 15 years imprisonment. The section makes it an offence to intentionally or recklessly cause a fire and be reckless as to the spread of fire to vegetation on property belonging to another. That means that there are circumstances in which a person can be found guilty of this offence even though they didn't set out to start a bushfire. It would be enough for the person to have started a fire in extreme conditions without giving any thought to the risk that the fire would spread.

Of course, there are exceptions to this offence for people carrying out fire prevention, fire suppression or land management with lawful authority and who honestly believed their conduct was justified in the circumstances.

At the other end of the spectrum, land owners and campers should be aware of the penalties that apply for lighting fires in certain conditions during bushfire season. Most of these offences are set out in Country Fire Authority Act 1958. That act allows the Country Fire Authority (CFA) to declare certain times to be a 'Fire Danger Period' in different parts of country Victoria that are at increased risk of fires, as well as declare Total Fire Bans.

Section 37 makes it an offence to light a fire in the open air durung a fire danger period unless authorised to do so. The maximum penalty is imprisonment for up to 12 months or a fine of approximately $17,500.There are exceptions for lighting fires in accordance with a written permit as well as specific activities (such as campfires and burning rubbish) if certain conditions are met. These activities and conditions can be found on the CFA's website.

Section 39 prohibits certain actions near fires during a fire danger period, each of which also carry a maximum penalty of 12 months imprisonment or a fine of approximately $17,500. For example, it is an offence to leave an open air fire unless it is completely extinguished or another person with capacity and means to extinguish it is left in charge. It is also an offence to drop or throw down in the open air any lighted tobacco, cigarette, cigar, match or any other burning material. These offences apply irrespective of whether any fire or explosion is caused as a result.

During periods of total fire bans, it is an offence to light a fire in the open air under any conditions or even allow a fire in the open air to remain alight. The maximum penalty for these offences is 2 years imprisonment or a fine of approximately $35,000.

These are just some of the more common offences created by the legislation. Given the range of offences and serious penalties that can be imposed, it is important to consult the CFA for more information before carrying out any activity that involves a fire.

If you have been charged or interviewed by police in relation to an offence involving fires you should contact Armstrong Legal for advice immediately.

About the Author

John is partner of Armstrong Legal and head of the Criminal Law Division. The experience John possesses, being a high quality mix of defence and prosecution skills, together with his team at Armstrong Legal, mean you can be certain of accurate, dependable and practical advice on how your matter can dealt with.

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