A FURIOUS Cessnock MP Clayton Barr says there is “no doubt” in his mind the bushfire that threatened his community last weekend was deliberately lit.
It comes as the Rural Fire Service reveals it is treating both the Cessnock and Port Stephens bushfires as “suspicious”, with initial investigations failing to identify a natural cause.
Fairfax Media can also reveal the Cessnock bushfire, which ignited on Saturday in bushland around Racecourse Road, had multiple ignition points.
It matches the personal experience of Mr Barr, who watched the ensuing inferno from his home in disbelief.
“As we looked over into the bushland, there were at least three spots burning in the first half an hour,” he said on Friday.
“Each of those fires were in equal distance apart – about 200 metres each.
“The police will do an investigation, but my experience leaves me with no doubt [the fires were deliberately lit].
“It could have absolutely killed someone.”
Both the Cessnock and Port Stephens bushfires triggered evacuations, burning through a combined 10,000 hectares of bushland, blanketing Newcastle in smoke for days.
It is understood the Cessnock fire burnt over any potential evidence to pursue a criminal investigation.
Cessnock mayor Bob Pynsent said the fire “had all the hallmarks” of the deliberately-lit 2002 Abernethy blaze, which killed Sydney businessman Ronald Gillett and destroyed at least six homes.
“For anyone to do that is just totally irresponsible,” an incredulous Cr Pynsent said.
Sindy Pickering, who was trapped at her Aberdare home with her family after it became too late to leave, was appalled the fire was likely intentional.
“We could have lost our lives,” she said. “It’s pretty dramatic when you’re in the middle of it. I was in shock.”
The Aberdare woman said initially it appeared her house was not in danger when the fire first flared up on Saturday. She did not receive an early warning text message. “In two minutes it was at the back fence,” Ms Pickering said.
Cessnock is no stranger to firebugs, and last year had the worst arson record in the Hunter, with a rate of arson three times higher than the state average.
Central Hunter crime manager Detective Inspector George Radmore warned that arson was a criminal offence with significant penalties, including jail time.
“It puts lives at risk; it causes not only significant property damage, but damage to bushland as well. Police treat it very seriously,” he said.
The Cessnock fire has since been extinguished, while the Port Stephens blaze is still burning but under control.
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