Australia to probe cause of fires

Several towns still at risk as police launch special force to investigate arson claims.

    The disaster area in the state of Victoria is twice the size of London [Reuters]

    Australian officials have said that the danger is far from over in the state of Victoria as they investigate the cause of devastating wildfires.

    At least 181 people are confirmed dead and the death toll is expected to rise.

    John Brumby, the Victoria premier, said more than 50 people were believed to be "already deceased but not yet identified", and that the final toll from Australia's deadliest bushfires would "exceed 200 deaths."

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    Firefighters were on Wednesday morning battling 24 fires still burning, some believed to have been deliberately lit.

    Firefighters said hot weather would return later in the week and a dozen towns were placed on alert as strong winds flared.

    "The fires are nowhere near controlled for people to let their guard down," Kevin Monk, a spokesman for the Australian Department of Sustainability and Environment, said.

    'Murder charges'

    Authorities have announced that anyone found guilty of deliberately starting fires could face manslaughter or murder charges.

    "The laws of the state provide that they can be put away and put away for life," Kevin Rudd, the prime minister, said.

    "My own personal view is they should be allowed to rot in jail. This is unspeakable murder on a mass scale."

    Rudd said the fires had left 500 people injured and nearly 1,000 homes destroyed.

    Police have appealed to survivors to come forward with any evidence of suspicious activity.

    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.

    Investigators have said they are preparing photographic images of suspected arsonists thought to be responsible for fires that started in the area around the town of Gippsland.

    "We'll soon be in a position to provide face images of people we believe responsible," Detective Sergeant Brett Kahan told Melbourne's The Age newspaper.

    State police have set up a special task force dubbed Operation Phoenix to investigate all aspects of the fires, including tracking down arsonists responsible for some of the blazes.

    About 3,500sq km have been burnt in the fires, with about 3,400 firefighters still battling the blazes, according to Victoria state's Country Fire Authority (CFA).

    More than 5,000 people have been left homeless, many seeking shelter in community halls, schools and churches.

    Escaping the fire

    Many of the dead were incinerated in their cars as they tried to outrun the fires.

    Some managed to escape the flames by jumping into swimming pools or farm reservoirs, and one woman told Australian television how she and her children survived by hiding in a wombat hole in the ground.

    Many Australian animals survive bushfires by burrowing but thousands of wild animals as well as cattle and sheep have been killed.

    Dead animals have been found in the charred landscape [AFP]
    The Victoria state government has ordered a royal commission of inquiry, said to have sweeping powers, aimed at probing all aspects of the bushfires, including causes and also a review of bushfire safety guidelines.

    Kevin Monk, spokesman for the Australian Department of Sustainability and Environment, told Al Jazeera that a long-standing policy of telling residents to stay and fight the bushfires is now under review.

    "This policy has been in place for a number of years… but it will now be under revision," he said.

    "You have to also consider that these were the most extreme days in fire behaviour we have seen, therefore we need to examine the causes and the extent of the damage now and in the future."

    Pressure on Rudd

    Arson is often involved in Australian bushfires which break out every summer. But the fires rarely kill anywhere near as many as those killed in the weekend's infernos.

    The fires, as well as major floods in the state of Queensland, will put pressure on Rudd's government, which is due to deliver a new climate policy in May.

    Opposition politicians are citing the current extreme weather to back tougher action on tackling climate change and its effects

    Scientists say Australia, with its harsh environment, is set to be one of the nations most affected nations by climate change.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and agencies


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