20 Mar 2012

Firefighter guilty of causing Black Saturday deaths

6:31 pm on 20 March 2012

A former volunteer firefighter has been found guilty of killing 10 people by deliberately lighting a bushfire on Black Saturday.

Brendan Sokaluk, 42, has been on trial in the Victorian Supreme Court for the past month, accused of lighting the fire in the settlement of Churchill on 7 February 2009.

Ten people were killed, 150 homes razed and 36,000 hectares of land destroyed in the fire. Overall, Black Saturday - one of Australia's worst fires - left 131 people dead.

On Tuesday a jury found Sokaluk guilty of arson causing death and he was remanded in custody for sentencing at a later date. Outside court, defence barrister Jane Dixon said she thought there would be an appeal.

Convicted man mildly autistic

Sokaluk, who is autistic and has a mild intellectual disability, strenuously denied deliberately starting the fire. But he told police he might have accidentally started it when he threw cigarette ash out of his car window.

The ABC reports that the cigarette ash explanation was pivotal in a largely circumstantial case.

The trial heard that Sokaluk was seen in the area where the fire started - a fact he never denied. His broken-down car was subsequently found burnt-out.

On Black Saturday, the temperature in the Latrobe Valley spiked at 46 degrees Celsius, and high winds helped to create an inferno.