BUXTON, Feb 14 – Survivors made a heart-rending return Saturday to a town burnt to ashes in Australia’s deadliest bushfires, as police scoured the crime scene in their hunt for suspected arsonists.,
With one in five of the town’s original 500 residents feared dead, police counsellors were aboard the buses that took the traumatised survivors back to Marysville, northeast of Melbourne, for the first time since the inferno.
"It was a very emotional and traumatic time for these residents seeing their gutted houses and knowing that friends and neighbours died," Stuart Ord of the Victoria state Department of Sustainability and Environment told AFP.
Marysville residents said before the trip from the nearby town of Buxton they expected a tough ride through the devastation of the once-picturesque mountain hamlet, but many felt they needed to see it for themselves.
"It will be tough going back, but we need to do it to get closure," 80-year-old resident Bernie Culhane told reporters ahead of the visit.
Authorities said the residents, most of whom fled the town as it burst into flames, were not allowed to get off the buses that ferried them in groups or to take photographs of the crime scene.
"There were counsellors on the bus with the residents to help them through what was a very tough moment," Ord said after the grim pilgrimage that took place under police escort.
Around 100 people are feared to have died in the town when wildfires fuelled by high winds and tinder-box conditions engulfed the region’s eucalypt-covered hills a week ago.
The inferno killed more than 180 people and scorched several towns across vast areas of southeastern Victoria state but Marysville remains sealed off as a crime scene as police search for bodies and evidence of arson.
Police warned the death toll was set to rise further. The ruins of Marysville are believed to contain scores of unidentified bodies, and forensic investigators will continue to sift through the ashes as the buses tour the town.
"As we start to move further into Marysville, I expect the number of bushfire victims will increase, but that’s probably going to be early into next week," Victoria Police Deputy Commissioner Kieran Walshe told reporters.
The residents’ bus tour came as police indicated that the fire that destroyed Marysville and severely damaged other nearby towns may have been caused by arsonists.
Investigators traced the origin of the blaze to a popular camping and swimming area known as Murrindindi Mill and called for anyone who was in the area when the fire started on February 7 to urgently come forward.
"What we’re wanting to do is hear from everybody who was there, so if you were there on that day, it doesn’t matter if you were only there for a few minutes or you were there for a few hours, but we just need to really speak to you," Detective Superintendent Paul Hollowood said.
An unidentified man was Friday charged with arson causing death by setting another of the series of bushfires and was moved to state capital Melbourne for his own safety.
He was remanded to appear in court Monday and the media were ordered not to publish any material which could identify him amid public outrage that the infernos could have been maliciously lit.
The charges carry a maximum sentence of 25 years’ jail and Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has called for any arsonists proven to have lit the fires to "rot in jail."
Up to 5,000 firefighters continued to battle around 12 blazes which were still burning in Victoria, but milder weather forecast for the coming days was making their job easier.
"We have no urgent threat message out for any communities at the moment, which is a real relief given the horrific events of last weekend," said John Maguire of the Country Fire Service.
"Falling temperatures, high relative humidity and even a bit of drizzle in the evening is really helping our efforts and will continue to do so into the middle of next week," he told AFP.
Sixty firefighters from the United States were on their way to help with the fires that have destroyed 1,800 homes and scorched 450,000 hectares (1.1 million acres), Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Friday in Washington.