Australian ex-firefighter sentenced to 17 years jail over 'Black Saturday' fires


Flowers and messages are placed on a fire-damaged tree on the one year anniversary of 'Black Saturday', Australia's worst ever wildfires and worst peace-time disaster, on Feb. 7, 2010 in Strathewen, Australia.


Richard Kendall

A former firefighter has been sentenced to 17 years and nine months in jail for starting one of Australia's "Black Saturday" wildfires in 2009 and causing the deaths of 10 people.

Brendan James Sokaluk, 42, said a fire at Churchill in the Australian state of Victoria was an accident caused by his cigarette, but the court found he started it deliberately, the BBC reported.

Black Saturday, on Feb. 7, 2009, was the worst wildfire disaster in Australian history, according to the Associated Press

The fire at Churchill was one of several hundred, fanned by hot, dry, windy conditions, that killed 173 people and destroyed more than 2,000 homes.

Victorian Supreme Court Justice Coghlan said Sokaluk — who is autistic — knew his actions would cause damage, although he did not intend to kill anyone, according to the Australian Associated Press.

He said the fact the blaze was deliberately lit made it even more devastating for the families of victims.

"Death from natural disaster would be bad enough, but their suffering is significantly increased from knowing that the fire which caused the death was deliberately lit," he said.

Coghlan said he took Sokaluk's autism spectrum disorder and mild intellectual disability into account in sentencing him on 10 counts of arson causing death.

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In sentencing, Coghlan said he was satisfied that Sokaluk lit two fires on the afternoon of Feb. 7, 2009 which rapidly spread and eventually developed into an out-of-control firestorm which destroyed more than 150 homes.

"I am also satisfied that you did not intend to kill anyone," he said.

Sokaluk had faced a sentence of up to 250 years.

Several media cited Rhonda Jacobs, who lost three family members in the Churchill blaze, as welcomed the sentence.

"Justice has been done and we're grateful, even though were leaving behind much-loved family," she said, AFP reported.

"We now have a grandson without a father, mother or brother."

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