More than 5,000 people are now homeless due to the fires [AFP]

Australian police say they are making progress in their hunt for arsonists thought to be behind some of the deadly bushfires that have swept large areas of the state of Victoria.

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At least 181 people are confirmed to have died in the fires, while state officials have warned the emergency is far from over.

Police hunting those believed to have started some of the fires have launched the largest arson investigation in Australia's history amid claims that fresh fires were lit overnight on Tuesday.

Twenty-three wildfires continue to rage across farms and tinder-dry bushland, and firefighters fear some could merge into massive fires even more difficult to bring under control.

Steve Warrington, the deputy chief fire officer of the Country Fire Authority (CFA), told the AFP news agency that fires near the towns of Bunyip and Kinglake could merge if they are carried by northerly winds forecast for Saturday.

Firefighters say some fires could merge into even more dangerous infernos [EPA]
Meanwhile rescue officials have begun the grim task of searching for and trying to identify bodies, many of which have been badly burned.

John Brumby, the premier of Victoria, said the final toll would exceed 200, but media reports say police fear that more than 300 people may have died.

He said there was "little doubt" that several fires had been deliberately lit overnight.

"I think words escape us all when it comes to describing that deliberate arson," he said.

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.

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

'It was hell'

In the town of Marysville, as many as 100 of the town's 500 or so residents are believed to have died last weekend, officials said.
 
"The toll is going to be massive," John Munday, a firefighter, told The Australian newspaper, "the whole town died around us".

"We had people banging on the sides of our tanker begging us to go back to houses where they knew there were people trapped, but we couldn't because if we had we'd all be dead too," he said.

"There were children running down the streets with flames behind them. It was hell. I never want to go back to that place, never."

As survivors returned to towns devastated by the wildfires, officials have warned the danger is far from over.

Christine Nixon, the state police commissioner, said officers were probing reports of fresh attacks and that investigators were closing in on an arsonist blamed for lighting a fire in the Gippsland region, in Victoria's east.

Philip Shepard, an inspector with the Victoria police, told Al Jazeera that investigations were in their early stages, but he expected arrests to be made soon.

"There are 150 investigators involved and we are actively pursuing leads and information given to us by the public," he said.

"We are now certain that some of the fires were started deliberately, and we are hopeful and very confident we'll be able to make some arrests soon."

Looting claims

Police are also investigating claims of looting in the devastated areas [Reuters]
About 3,500sq km have been burnt in the fires, with about 3,400 firefighters still battling the blazes, according to the CFA.

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

As police continue investigations, firefighters have also raised concerns about looters picking through the remains of properties in the disaster zone.

"We have had some reports of looting and certainly some (firefighting) volunteers and citizens who have told us that they have seen strange people in their neighbourhoods," Nixon said.

"Part of the reason for blocking off access and only letting residents in is to protect infrastructure up there."

Arson is often involved in Australian bushfires which break out easily in the hor dry conditions seen in the area every summer.

But the fires rarely kill anywhere near as many as those killed in the weekend's infernos.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies