Australian police have delivered a harsh warning for anyone looting from bushfire-ravaged areas, saying it goes against the Aussie spirit - even as three people have been charged.
NSW deputy police commissioner Gary Worboys said looting goes against the essence of Australia.
"The penalties are quite severe," he said on Tuesday.
Three people have been charged over alleged offences committed in bushfire-ravaged parts of the south coast in NSW, news.com.au reports.
Police found a screwdriver and bandanna on a 17-year-old male in the Bangalee area about 5pm on Sunday. He was charged with possessing housebreaking implements and means to disguise his face.
On Monday a man, 30, searched by police in Nowra was allegedly found in possession of a jemmy bar, torches, pliers, military badges and a debit card.
Another man, 33, in Moruya was found to be driving around the area and acting suspiciously on Monday. He was breathtested and return a positive result. Worboys said police would continue to conduct patrols to deter opportunistic thieves.
"It's difficult to comprehend that there are people who would try to profit or benefit at the expense of communities who have already lost so much," he said.
"There are large numbers of police – both local and specialist officers – proactively patrolling bushfire-affected areas to prevent and target this absolutely unacceptable – and criminal – behaviour."
Worboys said there was no specific looting offence that people could be charged with.
"There's no specific offence for looting, but as we know, people's homes are their castles and particularly in these times of devastation, it really does just go against the grain of Australian people and the spirit of it. We will take action."
He said people were looking for simple items they could convert to money.
"We know that some military badges were stolen," he said.
"We also know that push-bikes and items that can be easily converted to money."
Police Minister David Elliott said this wasn't South Central LA, or Syria.
"We don't do this to each other," he said.
"This is the south coast of New South Wales. For anyone, regardless of age or mental state, to want to take advantage of their fellow citizens' disadvantage, they should expect the full force of the law."
Brutal message to looters
The bushfire-ravaged town of South Durras has left a brutal message for looters beside their community notice board.
South Durras residents have said they will use wood-chippers, boats and even a crab pot on would-be looters.
A South Durras resident who did not want to be named told news.com.au why looters should be afraid of such a threat.
"The idea is chip the looters like you mulch branches in a wood chipper, then go out in the boat and put the chipped looter bits into crabpots as bait…" the resident said.
'We will put you before the courts'
NSW is at a "tinder-box situation" and anyone who is caught putting the community at risk — whether they meant to or not — will be put before the courts, warned the state's police minister.
Elliott said that residents would have to be from "Mars in a bubble" not to realise how dangerous it was to break the current total fire ban.
He said there's one "unfortunate repeat offence" when it comes to arson, that police have had to deal with time and again — motorists tossing cigarettes out of windows.
"In my mind, anybody that lights a fire either necessarily or unnecessarily against the total fire ban is putting the community at risk and that needs to be pulled up, called out and in many cases, to be put before the court," he said yesterday.
NSW police say officers have taken legal action against 183 people for more than 200 bushfire-related offences since November last year.
Out of those, 24 people have been charged over alleged deliberately-lit bushfires.
Fifty-three people have had legal actions for allegedly failing to comply with a total fire ban.
Forty-seven people have had legal actions for allegedly discarding a lit cigarette or match on land.
Worboys said police would take action.
"We have police both in plain clothes and uniform, specialist police, right up and down the south coast, night and day, looking around these areas, not just where homes are but where people have been evacuated, looking at suspicious behaviour, looking for the community to make reports of that behaviour," he said.
He said it was dreadful time for so many people to then have to deal with this.
"It's disgusting behaviour, behaviour that we won't tolerate, simply because the community will not tolerate it either," he said.
"I can't stress enough that if people see anything of a suspicious nature they ring Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000.
"If there is a crime being committed at the minute, they should ring triple-0, the emergency number and I guarantee police will respond. Every single report that we get we will investigate.
Here are some of the sentences you can cop for bushfire-related crimes in NSW.
• Starting a bushfire and being reckless as to its spread – up to 21 years imprisonment.
• Lighting a fire when a total fire ban is in place – up to 12 months imprisonment and/or a A$5500 fine.
• Not putting out a fire that you have lit – up to 12 months imprisonment and/or a A$5500 fine.
• Failing to comply with a bush fire hazard reduction notice – up to 12 months imprisonment and/or a A$5500 fine.
• Light or use a tobacco product within 15 metres of any stack of grain, hay corn, straw or any standing crop, dry grass or stubble field – up to a A$5500 fine.