A national warning system had been planned since 2004 and is now set to be implemented [AFP]

Police in Australia have charged a man with lighting one of the deadly bushfires that swept the south-eastern state of Victoria.

The man, who has not been named, was charged on Friday with one count of "arson causing death" related to a fire near the town of Churchill, where at least 21 people died.

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Reports said the man had been transferred from rural Victoria to Melbourne, the state capital, for his own safety.

His arrest comes amid a wave of anger over the fires and the possibility, police say, that many of them were deliberately lit.

Kevin Rudd, Australia's prime minister has described Australia's deadliest bushfires as "mass murder" and said anyone found guilty of starting them should "rot in jail".

Wildfire arson carries a maximum penalty of 25 years in prison, but authorities have said they will bring murder charges if they can.

A murder conviction carries a maximum life sentence.

On Friday the official death toll from the fires stood at 181, although police say the toll will likely rise much higher as searches continue of scores of burned out homes and communities.

Warning system

Wildfires continue to rage as fears mount some of the blazes could merge [AFP]
News of the arson charge came as the Australian government promised to push through plans for a revamped national fire warning system

A national warning system aimed at alerting rural residents of a potential bushfire, has been stalled by privacy laws and disagreements between state officials over funding for many years.
 
Robert McClelland, the Australian attorney-general, said a plan for a telephone alert system had been before the government since 2004, but state governments had not endorsed it and changes were required to federal laws that prohibit private phone numbers from being handed out.

McClelland has said he supports sending a barrage of automated warnings to all phones in an area where there is an emergency.

He also said another reason the system had not been implemented was because officials had to be sure it would not crash communications systems used by emergency services.

Overdue

Bruce Esplin, head of the Victorian Emergency Services, said a national warning system for fires, floods and potential terrorist attacks was overdue.

"I think it's taken too long,'' he told the Associated Press.

"I think we need to work as a country, not as separate states and territories, and it's time we did that."

Thousands of mostly volunteer firefighters have continued to battle more than a dozen fires across the state amid fears that fresh fires could break out.

On Friday state authorities said more than 1,800 homes had been destroyed in the wildfire disaster, more than double the earlier reported figure.

In a separate development police said they have released two men who were detained on Thursday after they were reported by local residents of "acting suspiciously" in an area burned out by fires.

Source: Agencies