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24 Australians arrested for deliberately setting fires this season

ABC News logo ABC News 1/7/2020

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Two dozen Australians in the state of New South Wales have been arrested since early November for intentionally setting fires as record-large blazes continue to burn across the country.

There have been 24 people charged with deliberately setting fires among 183 facing legal action in the state, according to the New South Wales Police Force.

In addition to those facing the most serious charges of starting fires intentionally, authorities said another 53 people are facing legal action for not complying with the state's fire ban and 47 people have faced legal action for discarding a lit cigarette or match on land.

Starting a bushfire intentionally and being reckless in causing its spread can result in up to 21 years in prison, authorities said. 

Legal actions can range "from cautions through to criminal charges," according to NSW police.

At least 24 people have been killed and over 2,000 homes have been destroyed by the bushfires, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Monday. Over 12 million acres have burned in Australia since the start of the fire season.

New South Wales, in the southeastern part of the country, has been particularly hard hit by fires this season. The state includes the capital of Sydney, Australia's largest city, as well as Newcastle, Maitland, Central City and Wollongong. It is the country's most populous state.

The University of Sydney estimated 480 million animals have perished in Australia's fires in New South Wales alone. 

an orange sunset in the background: A car travels on a road through thick smoke from bush fires in Bemboka, in Australia's New South Wales state, Jan. 5, 2020. © Saeed Khan/AFP via Getty Images A car travels on a road through thick smoke from bush fires in Bemboka, in Australia's New South Wales state, Jan. 5, 2020. "The fires have also been devastating for Australia’s wildlife and wild places, as vital areas of bush, forests and parks have been scorched and many millions of animals killed or injured," Dr. Stuart Blanch, senior manager land clearing and restoration with World Wildlife Fund-Australia, told ABC News. "Until the fires subside the full extent of damage will remain unknown."

The Insurance Council of Australia said Tuesday local time the estimated damage bill with insurance claims has reached $485 million U.S., while Morrison said Monday that the government was committing an extra $1.4 billion U.S. toward the recovery effort. Tens of millions had already been promised to the cause.

The fires have received worldwide attention in recent weeks, with many politicians and celebrities rallying to the cause. Late Monday U.S. time, Australian actor Chris Hemsworth pledged $1 million to fight the wildfires. Celebrities such as singer Pink, Australian actress Nicole Kidman and musician husband Keith Urban have donated $500,000 each to the cause.

a fire hydrant on a dirt track: An RFS Crew attempts to put out a smoldering pile of railway sleepers. The sleepers measured over 600 degrees on a thermal temperature gauge two days after the fire front had passed through on Jan. 6, 2020 in Wingello, Australia. © Brett Hemmings/Getty Images An RFS Crew attempts to put out a smoldering pile of railway sleepers. The sleepers measured over 600 degrees on a thermal temperature gauge two days after the fire front had passed through on Jan. 6, 2020 in Wingello, Australia. Many have also called attention to the affects of climate change and global warming for accelerating the spread of bushfires. 

"Approaches that ignore the fact that the climate is changing and the odds that these kinds of hazards like wildfires, like heat waves, like heavy rainfall, like extreme storm surge flooding -- not acknowledging that these hazards are changing is a recipe for continuing to be exposed to these kinds of unprecedented conditions,” Noah Diffenbaugh, a climate researcher and earth system science professor at Stanford University, told ABC News.

ABC News' Stephanie Ebbs contributed to this report.

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