POLICE across the state are cracking down on reckless behaviour this bushfire season, with serious penalties for anyone caught doing the wrong thing.
The statewide operation ‘Safeguard’ launched last week, focusing on both deliberate and careless behaviours that increase the risk of bushfires.
In Bass Coast and South Gippsland, police, in partnership with other emergency services, will conduct special patrols of camping areas and rural properties over the coming months to detect risk factors such as campfires or burning off on Total Fire Ban days.
Victoria Police Superintendent Mick West – who oversees Bass Coast, South Gippsland, Baw Baw and Latrobe City – said authorities would also be on the lookout for arson “in high risk areas where people have in the past been likely to deliberately start fires”.
“Even though it’s pretty green at the moment, when you get to this period when things are heating up and starting to dry out, we like to make sure everyone’s aware of the risks, and reinforce the message that people need to be more diligent and really think before lighting any campfires, doing any burning off, or using machinery,” Superintendent West said.
“Farmers or tradies or anyone using angle grinders or welding equipment out in the open – it just can’t be done on those high-risk days,” he said.
“And we have had cases of arson, small fires, in Bass Coast and South Gippsland, so any persons of interest with that sort of background, we’ll certainly be keeping an eye on in these high-risk periods.”
With the region considered high risk due to its large amount of bushland, authorities will take a “zero tolerance” approach on every occasion of illegal fire behaviour, with a “wide raft” of penalties available to them, from fines to jail time.
Lighting a fire on a Total Fire Ban day can attract a fine of up to $39,000 or up to two years in jail.
Anyone found guilty of recklessly or intentionally causing a bushfire faces a penalty of up to 15 years’ imprisonment.
“You only have to look through the history of Gippsland – we have had fatal fires caused by people burning off and losing control,” Superintendent West said.
“One deliberate or reckless act can kill people, and destroy property – we’ve seen that over the last 20-30 years.
“We just want everyone to do the right thing and keep the community safe.”
One area of particular concern was Wilsons Promontory National Park, which experiences a huge influx of visitors over summer and has been evacuated in the past due to bushfires, Superintendent West said.
He wasn’t as worried about Phillip Island, despite its occupants only having one way out in case of fire, saying the local authorities knew their emergency plans “back to front” and that filled him with “a lot of confidence”.
“Hopefully, they won’t have to activate them, but everyone in the more heavily populated areas needs to always be vigilant and have plans in place to evacuate,” he said.
Operation Safeguard runs from mid-November 2020 until March 2021.
Anyone who witnesses suspicious behaviour as it is occurring should call Triple Zero (000) and anyone with information should contact Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000 or crimestoppersvic.com.au.