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Friday, 4 January, 2002, 13:20 GMT
Sydney arsonists to face fire victims
Elvis can drop thousands of gallons of water on fires
As bushfires continue to rage out of control, the Australian state of New South Wales says it intends to introduce new penalties for arson offenders.


Our crew had a lucky escape when a burning tree fell on power lines

David Lowery, Sydney firefighter

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Twenty-four people have so far been arrested for arson - 15 of them between the ages of nine and 16.

Under the new rules, children found guilty of arson will be compelled to confront hospital patients with severe burns to see for themselves the full horror of what bush fires can do.

They will have to talk to hospital doctors in what state premier Bob Carr hopes will be a traumatic experience that will force children to change their behaviour.

And they will be forced to help victims pay for the damage.

Click here for a map of the fires threatening Sydney

Mr Carr said putting children in prison would be too easy. The new measures were intended to traumatise offenders into changing their behaviour.

At least 15,000 firefighters have been battling the blazes
He said: "Our goal is to take these young people by the scruff of the neck and rub their noses in the ashes that their behaviour has generated."

He intends to introduce the new penalties within a few days.

The is no end in sight to the bush fires which are still threatening thousands of homes.

Blazes have destroyed half a million hectares (1,235,000 acres) of bushland across the state for 12 days and Mr Carr said dangerous combinations of high temperatures, wind and low humidity would keep more than 100 fires blazing.

Firefighter injured

The bush fires claimed their first serious casualty on Friday when a firefighter had to be flown to hospital with burns to his feet, legs and hands while battling a blaze in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney.

Fourteen firefighters trapped by a wall of flame in the Blue Mountains had a lucky escape when Australia's firefighting super helicopter - dubbed Elvis - came to their rescue.

Fires are expected to continue into next week
"The wind was swirling the flames. We couldn't drive out, so we went into emergency procedures," said fireman Mick Barr.

"We got the chainsaw out and cut down some trees... I've never got the emergency blankets out before," he said.

Following a desperate radio call for help, the men were saved by a targeted water bombing from the helicopter, which can drop nine tonnes of water at a time.

"As the fire was coming in front of us the chopper came over. In the 10 years I've been a firey I can say that was the scaredest I have been," fire captain Michael Laverton said.

The Erickson Air-Crane Helitanker, or Elvis, comes from the US National Guard in Memphis, Tennessee.

Australian authorities said they would be getting two more super-helicopters from the United States to help cope with the fires.

The fires have destroyed 160 homes leaving an estimated $70m (US$36m) damage bill, well above the 1994 bushfire damage bill of $56m.

Ash from the fires - which are visible from space - has been dropping in New Zealand 2,200km (1,400 miles) away.

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The BBC's Michael Peschardt
"The fire perimeter now stretches for more than a thousand miles"
The BBC's Dominic Hughes
"The crisis shows no sign of easing"
See also:

31 Dec 01 | Asia-Pacific
Australian newspapers herald public spirit
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