Australia fire zone a 'crime scene'

Police launch investigation amid fears death toll from wildfires may reach 300.

    An inquiry has been launched to determine the cause of the bushfires [AFP]

    Australian police have said they are treating all areas hit by a wave of deadly bushfires as a potential crime scene, as investigators examine a vast blackened wasteland amid allegations that some of the fires were deliberately lit.

    At least 181 people are confirmed to have died in the fires, with police warning the eventual death toll could go above 300.


     Pictures: Battling the blaze

     Video: Massive devastation

    On Tuesday about 25 fires still raged across the state of Victoria, including in some of the hardest hit areas north of Melbourne, the state capital.

    Police have said anyone convicted of deliberately starting the fires could face a murder charge and they have appealed to survivors to come forward with any evidence of suspicious activity.

    "All of the fires have been treated as a crime scene," a police spokesman told the Reuters news agency.

    "We do believe they may have been lit deliberately, but we can't confirm it."

    "This is simply murder on a grand scale"

    Kevin Rudd,
    Australian PM

    Investigators meanwhile 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.

    So far, about 3,500 sq 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.


    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.

    "We believe the [death] toll will rise. It's a very sad thing for all of us in our community ... we hope towards the end of the weekend the toll will start to settle in terms of numbers," Christine Nixon, the Victorian police chief commissioner told AFP news agency.

    Many of the dead were incinerated in their cars as they tried to outrun the fires, which were fanned by strong winds and already searing temperatures.

    On Tuesday Kevin Rudd, the Australian prime minister, told parliament he was "speechless" at the thought that some fires were started deliberately, saying anyone who did so was responsible for "murder on a grand scale".

    "Something which the nation must now attend to as a matter of grave urgency is the problem of arson," he told MPs.

    "This is simply murder on a grand scale. Let us attend to this unfinished business of the nation and come to grips with this evil thing."

    The Victoria state government has also 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."

    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.

    Exhausting battle

    Firefighters continue to battle about 25 fires that are still raging across Victoria [EPA]
    On Tuesday firefighters, most of them volunteers who have had little rest since Saturday, continued to an exhausting and dangerous battle try and save communities in the path of the flames.

    The town of Healesville, about 50km northeast of Melbourne, was the latest community threatened by the fires.

    The CFA warned the town was in danger from "heavy ember attack," a phenomenon that survivors likened to a fiery hailstorm of hot coals raining down on them.

    Further east in Gippsland, firefighters were trying to control a massive blaze stretching more than 100km.

    "We've got about 135km of fire line and only a small proportion of that, about 12km, has been contained," Stephen Walls, the CFA incident controller, told AFP.

    Australia's previously worst bushfire disaster was the so-called "Ash Wednesday" fires of 1983 which killed 75 people and destroyed more than 2,000 homes.

    The fires, as well as major floods in the state of Queensland, will put pressure on Rudd's government, who 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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