- The Washington Times - Friday, December 28, 2001

SYDNEY, Australia Arsonists may have sparked nearly half of the 100 bush fires that have destroyed homes and wildlife and forced mass evacuations in Australia's most populous state, police and fire officials said yesterday.
As the infernos some now burning for a week continued to raze hundreds of thousands of acres of land in New South Wales, police set up a task force to gather information on several fires they considered suspicious.
Police said three 15-year-old boys were arrested for reportedly lighting small blazes in Shellharbour, about 60 miles south of Sydney. The boys were said to have been spotted lighting three bush fires by residents, who extinguished the flames with police help.
Rural Fire Services Commissioner Phil Koperberg said as many as 40 fires couldn't be explained and may have been set deliberately.
Authorities said lightning strikes started some of the fires, which caused an estimated $10.15 million in damages.
Acting state Prime Minister Andrew Refshauge said arsonists would be punished with the sternest penalties, including prison terms of up to 14 years and fines as high as $25,000.
Authorities say 150 homes have been destroyed and thousands of animals such as koalas and kangaroos have died as the fires burn north, south and west of Sydney, some less than 15 miles from the city center.
Major roads and rail services have been cut by the fires and about 12,000 homes are without electricity.
About 400 Boy Scouts were evacuated overnight from an area southwest of Sydney.
Pat Kennedy, who lives in the southern Sydney suburb of Heathcote, was among 1,000 people forced to evacuate overnight but who were able to return home yesterday morning.
"The fire was spitting burning embers into the back yard and on the roof," Mr. Kennedy said. "Today, it's snowing ashes."
Michael Brennan may not have been so lucky. He and his family were evacuated from the suburb of Warragamba on Christmas Day and he had been trying to telephone his house ever since.
He had not been able to connect to his home phone or his cellular phone, which he said he left on a table.
The last he heard about his house was from a neighbor.
"He was putting a fire out one yard down the side of our house," Mr. Brennan said.
About 30 houses and 10 shops and factories have burned down in Warragamba, authorities said.
The fires started late last week in rural areas and quickly spread, fanned by sweltering temperatures and high winds.
They have cast a pall of smoke and ash over the state capital, Sydney, and many are burning in the city's fringe suburbs.
No deaths or serious injuries have been reported.
Yesterday, fires were burning in a ring from Yamba, 420 miles north of Sydney, to Eurobodalla, 175 miles south of Sydney, and to Narromine, 250 miles to the west.

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