Arson probe as Australian wildfires burn

February 10, 2009 12:00 am

, HEALESVILLE, Feb 10 – Australian fire-fighters fought Tuesday to save communities from wildfires that have claimed 173 lives and left a trail of charred bodies in blackened homes and twisted car wrecks.

As investigators launched the country’s largest ever arson investigation, police warned that the death toll — already the worst in Australia’s history — would rise further during the week.

"Road by road, house by house, we are working our way through," Victoria Police Chief Commissioner Christine Nixon said.

"We believe the toll will rise. It’s a very sad thing for all of us in our community… we hope towards the end of the weekend that the toll will start to settle in terms of numbers."

In devastated Kinglake, Ross Buchanan risked his life to save his home — only to find his 15-year-old son McKenzie and daughter Neeve, nine, had been killed as fire ripped through the rest of the town.

"I’ve lost two kids, nothing can bring them back," he told Sky News.

The mounting number of bodies has forced authorities to set up a temporary morgue in Melbourne which has so far admitted 101 victims, the Victoria state coroner said.

Nixon said a special task force involving 100 officers, dubbed Operation Phoenix, would investigate all aspects of the fires, including tracking down arsonists responsible for some of the blazes.

She said authorities were confident of arresting one blamed for starting and repeatedly reigniting fires in Gippsland, in Victoria’s east, where almost 20 people have died.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has described the arsonists as "mass murderers," and Victoria Police Minister Bob Cameron said authorities were determined to catch them.

"The sooner that they’re taken out of the community the better for everybody’s sake," he told Sky News. "We now know the devastation that they’ve caused."

Exhausted firefighters, most of them volunteers who have had little rest since the firestorms flared on Saturday, had more immediate concerns as they tried to save communities in the path of the flames.

Healesville, about 50 kilometres (31 miles) northeast of Melbourne, was the latest community threatened by the fires, which razed entire towns over the weekend.

Victoria’s Country Fire Authority warned the town was in danger from "heavy ember attack," a phenomenon that survivors who have faced it liken to a fiery hailstorm of burning embers.

Further east in Gippsland, fire-fighters were trying to control a massive blaze stretching more than 100 kilometres.

"We’ve got about 135 kilometres (84 miles) of fire line and only a small proportion of that, about 12 kilometres, has been contained," Country Fire Authority incident controller Stephen Walls told reporters.

More than 30 US fire-fighters are flying to Australia to join reinforcements from fire departments around the country who are heading to Victoria, Sky News reported.

Australians, transfixed by the tales of tragedy and survival, have donated about 14 million dollars (9.1 million US) to a relief fund for the victims.

Red Cross Chief Adam Dent called for more money, saying some survivors had been left with only the clothes they stood in and entire communities needed to rebuild.

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

Peter Trapp, 41, told how he fled burning to his neighbour’s house in the Kinglake area after sending his wife and child to safety but failing to save his own home from the flames.

"When I was running it radiated heat, I could feel my skin burning," Trapp, heavily bandaged, told the Daily Telegraph.

"But you know how you don’t think clearly about things? I’m on fire and I’m going ‘oh no, I’m going to have all these scars’.

"I wasn’t thinking about survival."

His biggest problem now is "trying to find a way to tell a three-year-old his house has burnt down," he said.


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