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Light punishments for underage firebugs fuel calls to revise the law

More than 100 minors each year are accused of lighting fires in New South Wales but very few face trial, prompting calls for the Young Offenders Act to be revised.

Three teenage boys were arrested after a grassfire was started in Sydney’s south-west on Monday, the latest young arsonists to join the roster of those caught breaching the total fire bans.

Last week a 13- and 14-year-old lit a fire in scrubland on the far north coast, and a nine-year-old in Nowra was let off with a warning after starting the Worrigee bushfire with a blowtorch.

RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons says NSW has some of the toughest penalties in the country, but there are “enormous complexities” when it comes to prosecuting juvenile firebugs.

“There’s some real heartbreak stories there,” he says, “What even gets a young person to the state where they get involved in this sort of thing?”

Mr Fitzsimmons acknowledged tougher action is needed, but cautioned against heavy-handed punishments which don’t fit the crime.

“You’ve got everything from carelessness to stupidity to accidental, right through to the malicious end.”

When it comes to adults who intentionally light bushfires, however, he says “I don’t think there’s a penalty tough enough.

“If you are a repeat offender… then absolutely the book should be thrown at you, and you should be locked away forever.”

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Image: NSW RFS