Australia launches bushfire inquiry

Commission to determine cause of inferno and suggest ways to prevent a repeat.

    The fires have killed 200 people so far,
    including a fireman [Reuters]

    He said he would begin meeting fire victims and officials within two weeks, with hearings involving hundreds of witnesses.

    The causes of the fires, the adequacy of warnings, measures to help victims and raising public awareness of fire threats are among the urgent issues the commission will try to address before the next fire season, and it is to submit an interim report by mid-August.

    Toll hits 200

    Police this week raised the death toll to 200, including a fireman, adding that the figure could increase as more bodies are recovered from devastated areas.

    The fireman was killed on Tuesday night after a falling branch struck his truck in Marysville, the first death of an emergency worker in the fire zone since the fires started on February 7.

    There were concerns that the recommendations could take months to implement but John Brumby, Victoria's state premier, said not doing anything was "not an option".

    "I think the public would think we're not doing our job if there aren't some stronger controls that are put in place going forward," he told reporters in Traralgon South, a township hit hard by the fires.

    Massive devastation

    The disaster has also prompted a class-action
    suit against a power utility [Reuters]
    About 400 fires have hit south and southeastern Australia in the past two weeks, destroying more than 1,800 homes and scorching about 3,900 square kilometres of farms, forests and towns.

    Police suspect at least two of the fires were deliberately set, and have charged a suspect, Brendan Sokaluk, 39, with arson causing death and starting a wildfire.

    Sokaluk, who faces up to 25 years in jail if convicted, is being held in protective custody amid mounting public anger, with internet hate messages calling for his "torture and death".

    Julian McMahon, the suspect's lawyer, said the hate messages were posted on social networking sites after Sokaluk was named in court earlier this week, arguing for a continued ban on his photograph being published.

    Power company sued

    Meanwhile a Singapore-owned electricity supplier said it would "vigorously defend" itself against a compensation claim alleging that "faulty and/or defective power lines" caused losses and damage in one of the fires.

    Survivors filed a class-action lawsuit against SP AusNet, which is 51 per cent owned by the Singapore Power Group, claiming a downed power line sparked a blaze that killed more than 100 people and destroyed about 1,000 homes in the Kinglake area.

    The claim, which the company described as "premature and inappropriate", is expected to run into hundreds of millions of dollars, Australian media reported.

    SOURCE: Agencies


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