Suspicions that some of Australia’s worst wildfires ever were deliberately set led police to declare crime scenes in incinerated towns yesterday and a clearly emotional prime minister likened the alleged arson to mass murder. The death toll stood at 135.
The scale of the carnage, growing daily, has shocked a nation that endures deadly firestorms every few years. There were no quick answers, but officials said panic and the freight-train speed of the firefront probably accounted for the unusually high toll.
Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, visibly upset during a TV interview, reflected the country’s disgust at the idea that arsonists may have set some of the 400 fires that devastated Victoria state, or helped them jump containment lines.
“What do you say about anyone like that?” Rudd said. “There’s no words to describe it, other than it’s mass murder.”
Attorney General Robert McClelland said that people found to have deliberately set fires could face murder charges. Murder can carry a life sentence.
More than one dozen fires still burned uncontrollably across the state, though conditions were much cooler than on Saturday, which saw record-high heat and winds as fast as 100kph.
At least 750 homes were destroyed on Saturday, the Victoria Country Fire Service said. About 2,200km² of land was burned out.
Officials said both the tolls of human life and property would almost certainly rise as they reached deeper into the disaster zone, and forecasters said temperatures would rise again later in the week, posing a risk of further flare-ups.
In a sign of the nationwide impact of the tragedy, parliament suspended its normal sessions yesterday to hear condolence speeches by legislators. The voices of many quavered with emotion. Some called it Australia’s worst peacetime disaster.
More than 4,000 people registered themselves with the Australian Red Cross, which posted lists of names at some 20 emergency relief centers, the agency said. At one such center in Wittlesea, 12km from Kinglake, survivors scoured the lists looking for missing relatives.
Victoria Police Commissioner Christine Nixon said investigators had strong suspicions that at least one of the deadly blazes — known as the Churchill fire after a ruined town — was deliberately set.
Nixon said the probe would be long and complex, and cautioned against jumping to conclusions.
Police sealed off Maryville, a town destroyed by another fire, with checkpoints, telling residents who fled and news crews they could not enter because there were still bodies in the streets.
Armed police moved through the shattered landscape taking notes, pool news photographs showed.
Evidence of heart-wrenching loss abounded. From the air, the landscape was blackened as far as the eye could see. Entire forests were reduced to leafless, charred trunks, farmland to ashes.