Tue, Feb 17, 2009 - Page 1 News List

Australian fire toll rises as suspected arsonist is named


The death toll from wildfires that raged through southeastern Australia rose to 189 yesterday, as a suspected arsonist accused of lighting a firestorm that killed 11 was named in court.

Police said the body count from Australia’s worst wildfire disaster would rise further, with forensic experts continuing the grim search for bodies through the charred rubble of houses, towns and devastated countryside.

Australian Prime Minister Ke­vin Rudd said it was time for the nation to grieve and called a national day of mourning, but police also acknowledged intense community anger against arsonists believed to be behind some of the blazes.

Victoria state Police Deputy Commissioner Kieran Walshe said police had identified all the bodies found in open areas of countryside and were now combing through “difficult” areas of razed towns searching for more victims.

Providing the first update to a death toll that had officially remained static at 181 for almost a week, Walshe said it would take time before an accurate count of the number of inferno victims emerged.

“I don’t think it’s in the best interests of the community or anybody else for me to speculate what the numbers might be at some point in time,” he said.

Earlier, state police chief Christine Nixon had appealed for calm as a Melbourne court dealt with the case of a suspected arsonist accused over a fire in the east of Victoria that killed 11 people and razed about 200 homes.

A magistrate lifted an order suppressing the name of 39-year-old Brendan Sokaluk, who did not appear in court at his own request and was remanded in protective custody amid fears angry prisoners will target him.

He was charged with arson causing death, intentionally lighting a bushfire and possession of child pornography, facing a maximum sentence of 25 years on the arson charge.

Sokaluk’s lawyer Helen Spowart said there was a real risk of vigilante attacks against her client and his family if his name was published.

“This is an extraordinary case,” she told the court. “The level of emotion and anger and disgust that the alleged offenses have aroused in the community is unprecedented.”

However, magistrate John Klestadt lifted the suppression order, ruling it would have little practical effect.

Nixon appealed to the public to allow the justice system to deal with the suspect.

“We hope that we don’t have to deal with a gang of people who are angry and concerned about this arrest,” Nixon said.

There was a heavy police presence in court for the hearing yesterday, although no angry protesters turned up.

Police are investigating some of the other fires that raged through Victoria state, with arson suspected in at least one other major blaze that destroyed the town of Marysville and killed up to 100 people.

A memorial service in Melbourne at the Rod Laver Arena, the huge stadium that is the home of the Australian Open tennis tournament, was expected to be broadcast live on television and radio.

Thousands of firefighters were still battling eight blazes burning out of control around Victoria — down from more than 20 a few days ago — but no towns were under direct threat, officials said.

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