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Volunteer firefighter who lit Wooroloo bushfire and eight other blazes gets suspended jail term

ABC News (AU) logo ABC News (AU) 3/02/2023
Jude Wright lit the fires before helping his volunteer bushfire brigade extinguish them. (ABC News: Julian Robins) © Provided by ABC News (AU) Jude Wright lit the fires before helping his volunteer bushfire brigade extinguish them. (ABC News: Julian Robins)

A volunteer firefighter who lit nine bushfires in Perth's east, including one that destroyed a house, has avoided being sent back to jail.

Over three weeks of the Christmas and new year period in 2021-22, Jude Craig Wright repeatedly set alight scrunched-up paper and threw it out of his car window, setting fire to bushland along the roadside.

He then attended the Wooroloo bushfire brigade, where he was a volunteer, and helped extinguish the blazes.

One of the fires, on Boxing Day in 2021 when Perth was in the grip of a heatwave, caused an estimated $1 million in damage, including the destruction of a house and farm buildings and machinery.

The Perth to Kalgoorlie pipeline was also significantly damaged.

Wright, who was aged 18 and 19 at the time, pleaded guilty in the District Court to nine arson charges, with the court today told that when he was arrested the day after one of the fires, he told police: "I done it, I just don't know why."

His barrister Max Crispe submitted that his client's case was unique because Wright had been diagnosed with a range of impairments, meaning he had the "mental age of a child."

Mr Crispe told the court Wright's impaired mental functioning had affected his ability to control his actions and to understand what he was doing was wrong.

Wright abused in prison: lawyer

Wright had been a volunteer firefighter for about two years, and he knew that he would be called out to fight the fires. He later told an expert it was part of his desire to feel like a valued member of the community.

The court heard during his time as a volunteer, Wright had witnessed animals perish in fires and property being destroyed, and had also been trapped in a truck during one blaze.

Wright was initially kept in custody and Mr Crispe told the court while in prison he was repeatedly abused, including being set on fire, which had left him suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

State prosecutor Catherine Crouch submitted that an immediate jail term was appropriate, describing the offences as extremely serious and saying they had resulted in devastating consequences.

Ms Crouch said the fires had an emotional and psychological impact on people who were frightened for their lives and property.

She said the 78-year-old woman who lost her home in the most serious blaze had escaped only with the clothes she was wearing and her car.

Judge rules jail term inappropriate

Judge Natalie Whitby said three victim impact statements provided to the court outlined the catastrophic effect of the fires on people caught up in them.

She said fires were disastrous events in Australia because not only did they pose risks to property, they also endangered lives.

But Judge Whitby accepted that Wright's intellectual impairment meant an immediate jail term was not appropriate for him.

"Your significant impaired mental functioning … significantly affected your ability to appreciate the wrongfulness of your conduct … and to control your actions," she told him.

The court heard since Wright was released on bail in September last year, he had taken positive steps to rehabilitate himself, and Judge Whitby said it was in his and the community's interests that he was not sent back to prison.

She imposed a three-year suspended term with conditions that Wright be supervised and undertake further rehabilitative programs.

Outside the court, Mr Crispe described his client's case as "unique".

"We probably won't ever see another case as unique as this," he said.

"[There are] so many different mental health issues that need to be considered and I think it's a very fair outcome, the judge was very careful in analysing all the relevant factors."

Mr Crispe also said his client did not pose any threat to the community.

"NDIS is assisting him, he'll probably find himself a job, the family's very supportive, so there are so many factors in his favour," he said.

The Wooroloo blaze Wright was charged over came 10 months after the devastating fires in the same community that destroyed more than 80 homes.

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