WHEN the bushfire at Long Point near Mullion Creek took hold on New Year’s Eve, Lance Pennings grabbed a fire extinguisher and swam across the river in an attempt to put out the fire he started by setting off illegal fireworks.
When the extinguisher ran out, Pennings frantically ripped off his shirt and began beating at the fire, sustaining second degree burns to his body, as other members of the group, who had been camping on the Macquarie River, swam across to him with wet towels.
A call for help to emergency services failed because there was no UHF reception in the remote area.
All efforts were in vain as the fire engulfed a gum tree and took off, eventually burning out more than 475 hectares of Crown and private land and tying up scores of firefighters, helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft and fire units for several days.
Yesterday, Pennings pleaded guilty in Orange Local Court to setting fire to the bushland after a fireworks display for his young children went horribly wrong, costing taxpayers $1.5 million.
Pennings’ solicitor Mason Manwaring told the court his client had set off three fireworks before a fourth skyrocket fell over, shooting sparks across the river and igniting bushland.
“He set off the fireworks on a sandy part of the bank where it was cleared, thinking it would be alright but one of them exploded,” Mr Manwaring said.
Police prosecutor Sergeant Andy Bobin told Magistrate Bruce Williams in many ways Mr Pennings’ experience was “bad luck”.
“But this was a big fire of 475 hectares and it was on the news for days,” he said.
Pennings faced court charged with handling an explosive or precursor without an authorising licence, negligently handling explosives to cause property damage and causing to set fire to the property of another or the Crown.
However, Sergeant Bobin withdrew the first two charges on behalf of the police. Pennings will be sentenced next month.
Police evidence presented to the court revealed that when the fire could not be put out, the camping party drove 40 kilometres into Mullion Creek to raise the alarm with a member of the Rural Fire Service.
Pennings was treated by ambulance for burns to the left side of his body and his arm, and was transported to Orange hospital for treatment.
Police say 150 hectares of land near Long Point burned out in the first 24 hours, however, hot and windy conditions in the days that followed fuelled the fire.
After Pennings voluntarily went into Orange Police Station, police say he was extremely apologetic and remorseful for his actions.