Australian police combed through a blackened landscape searching for clues in the hunt for possible arsonists yesterday as the death toll from the nation’s worst bushfires looked likely to top 200.
Victoria state Police Commissioner Christine Nixon launched the nation’s biggest arson investigation, vowing to catch anyone who started a blaze.
The bushfires, which swept through Victoria on Saturday night, were “suspicious” because there were no natural events such as lightning that would have sparked the blazes, police said. Authorities said anyone found guilty could face manslaughter or murder charges.
“The laws of the state provide that they can be put away and put away for life,” Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said. “My own personal view is they should be allowed to rot in jail. This is unspeakable murder on a mass scale.”
The disaster area, more than twice the size of London and encompassing more than 20 towns north of Melbourne, has been declared a crime zone by officials. Police tape flutters around charred houses where bodies have been found.
At least 181 people have been confirmed killed in the fires, but officials said the toll would rise.
“There are still a large number of people, in excess of 50 ... who the coroner believes are already deceased, but are not yet identified,” Victorian Premier John Brumby told reporters. “This is going to be a significant number, it will exceed 200 deaths.”
About 25 fires were still burning in Victoria yesterday, with a dozen towns placed on alert as strong winds flared.
Victoria has ordered a Royal Commission of Inquiry to probe all aspects of the bushfires, including safety guidelines. The bushfire tragedy is the worst natural disaster in Australia in 110 years. The previous worst bushfire was the Ash Wednesday fires of 1983, which killed 75 people.
Australians have responded to the plight of wildfire victims with unprecedented generosity, charities said yesterday, pledging more than A$30 million (US$20 million) to relief appeals.
The Red Cross said its public appeal for the disaster had topped A$28 million yesterday. The Red Cross Web site struggled to cope with the numbers wanting to donate money, forcing it to post a message asking donors to be patient.
Corporate Australia contributed to the appeal, with Victorian-based gaming company Tabcorp donating A$2 million and each of the country’s four major banks chipping in A$1 million. Its appeal was set to be boosted by collections at the Australia-New Zealand one-day cricket match yesterday, while the Australian Olympic Committee donated A$800,000.
The Red Cross reported more than 20,000 people had contacted it wanting to donate blood.
Meanwhile, kangaroos, koalas and other wildlife have been “devastated” by the bushfires, wildlife experts said yesterday.
“We’re not seeing a lot of injured animals yet because the fires were so hot the animals were just killed on the spot,” Wildlife Protection Association of Australia president Pat O’Brien said.
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