Police have confirmed that at least one of the fires was deliberately lit [AFP]

Australian police have detained two people in connection with one of the many bushfires that has killed nearly 200 people and left 5,000 homeless in the southeastern part of the country.

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Police did not specify whether the arrests were connected to arson but the authorities have said that at least one fire that killed more than 20 people was deliberately lit.

"The investigation is in its initial stages. Two people are assisting police with inquiries," a police statement said on Thursday.

At least 181 people are confirmed to have been killed as a swarm of fires raged across Victoria in the past week and the toll is expected to rise as more bodies are found in charred homes and villages.

Fires 'deliberately lit'

Christine Nixon, the state police commissioner, said on Thursday that at least one case of arson had been confirmed and others were suspected.

Firefighters contionue to battle more than 20 blazes across Victoria [AFP]
"We're sure that the fire in [the town of] Churchill was deliberately lit," Nixon said, referring to a fire in which 21 people died.

"And we have now been given some information that makes us suspicious about the Marysville fire," she said.

Marysville, a town of some 500 people, was destroyed and officials have warned that the death toll of 15 could rise to 100 as the search for bodies continues.

"As we've gone to Marysville to investigate, we, along with fire experts, become suspicious about how the fire actually came into Marysville, the direction it came from, the pace it came with," Nixon told the AFP news agency.

Kevin Rudd, the Australian prime minister, has said any arsonists responsible for deaths in the disaster are guilty of "murder on a grand scale", as police mount the largest arson investigation in the country's history to catch the culprits.

In Victoria, arson carries a jail term of two to 15 years, and 25 years if there is loss of life.

The disaster area, more than twice the size of London and encompassing more than 20 towns north of Melbourne, the state capital, has been declared a crime zone.

The previous worst bushfire was the "Ash Wednesday" fires of 1983 which killed 75 people.

Further arson probes

Nixon also confirmed that police had received reports that more fires had been deliberately lit even as firefighters continued efforts to bring the blazes under control.

"We certainly have had reports of other fires being lit," Nixon told local television on Thursday.

"You and I would just be staggered by that, but that's what we're certainly seeing. We've been investigating those as well."

More than 3,000 firefighters are still battling about 20 bushfires across Victoria, but milder weather - after the volatile mix of extremely high temperatures and strong winds in the past week - have brought some relief.

"Because it's cool, [there is] little moisture in the air, the winds are very low, the weather conditions have been very favourable for what we have been trying to achieve," Stuart Ord, of the Australian Department of Environment and Sustainability, told the Australian Associated Press.

"The weather's going to be reasonably cool and calm today and for the next few days.

"That's going to help … in terms of getting our people and equipment to the fire edge and getting containment lines in. It gives us a window of opportunity now to do some good work."

Source: Agencies