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Four charged over blaze on Australia's Fraser Island, a Unesco World Heritage Site

MELBOURNE (NYTIMES) – Four people have been charged with unlawfully lighting a campfire that officials said sparked huge blazes on Fraser Island off the north-eastern coast of Australia in October, ultimately razing more than 85,000ha of the popular vacation spot.

A joint investigation between the local police and park rangers found that the men, aged 21-24, lit an illegal fire at a campsite on Oct 14. The authorities said that the fire then spread in a north-westerly direction, ravaging native vegetation and blackening more than half of the island, much of which is a national park known as K’gari that is renowned for its beaches, rainforest and immense biodiversity.

The conflagration was ultimately controlled earlier this month after heavy rain helped firefighters contain the blaze. Residents said they were traumatised by the smoke and rapid evacuations, but no injuries or deaths were reported.

Local authorities said that the men were cooperating with the authorities and felt deeply remorseful. A fifth male, 17, was also present but, as a minor, has not been charged.

“They’re shocked and devastated,” Mr David Harbison, a police official at Maryborough Station, near the island, said at a news conference on Tuesday.

“They were careless, but they never intended this to happen,” he added. “They didn’t deliberately set a fire to set fire to the island.”

The blaze was the first significant bush fire in Australia’s annual fire season, the ferocity of which scientists say is becoming increasingly difficult to predict.

Last year, bush fires across Australia’s south-east coast killed 33 people and more than a billion native animals, and destroyed thousands of homes. The world’s attention was captured by scenes of holidaymakers trapped on beaches, where the morning sky turned pitch black and birds fell dead from the sky.

At the time, conservative Australian politicians and media outlets promulgated the myth that arsonists were largely to blame for the ferocity of the flames, in what critics said was an attempt to shift attention away from climate change, which they said was the true culprit. The authorities said lightning strikes were likely responsible for a majority of the fires during that season.

Although the Fraser Island fires were sparked by people, scientists said it was crucial to remember that hotter and drier conditions are ultimately to blame for the speed at which the fires spread and the scale of their destruction.

“Climate change is making landscapes a lot more receptive to fire, because of longer fire seasons and drier fuel,” said Dr David Bowman, a professor of pyrogeography and fire science at the University of Tasmania. “The risk of accidental fires is escalating,” he added.

But, Dr Bowman said, the environment remains susceptible to fire even with tighter controls over human activity.

“We can’t prosecute nature, but we can regulate humans,” he said.

Many national and state parks in Australia, where summer temperatures frequently exceed 38 deg C, have seasonal or total bans on lighting campfires because of the risk they pose to the environment.

Campfires are largely banned year-round on Fraser Island, which is the world’s largest sand island, and is listed by the United Nations as a heritage site because of its unique ecosystem.

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Local rangers said that witnesses had filmed the men and made note of their vehicles, which helped the authorities bring the charges. The rangers went to the men’s campsite, according to investigators, but by that point flames had already been sparked in nearby vegetation.

A nine-week struggle to extinguish the flames ensued. Firefighters, battling sandy terrain, water bombed the region extensively. In the meantime, the staff and guests of one of the resorts on the western side of the island were evacuated. The nearby community of Happy Valley, with a population of about 770, narrowly escaped destruction.

The four men – a 21-year-old, a 23-year-old and two 24-year olds from south of Brisbane, Queensland’s capital – will appear at the local magistrate’s court in Hervey Bay on Jan 21. The 17-year-old male will be dealt with separately under Australia’s Youth Justice Act. Under Australian law, their names have not been released.

Dr Bowman, the fire expert, said that for the majority of Australians, who live in urban areas, it might be difficult to understand just how out of hand a small fire could become.

“It’s a bit unimaginable for them that a fire could escalate and burn half a world heritage area,” he said.

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