, SYDNEY, Feb 8 – Arsonists responsible for starting Australian wildfires which killed at least 65 people and destroyed more than 600 homes could be charged with murder, police said Sunday.
Police said there was no doubt arsonists were behind some of the fires, shocking a nation watching transfixed as towering flames and grieving families dominated television screens.
"Some of these fires have started in localities that could only be by hand, it could not be natural causes," Victoria state Police Deputy Commissioner Kieran Walshe said.
A police spokeswoman said anyone found to have started the fires — during a once-in-a-century heatwave which had turned the countryside into a tinderbox — would likely be charged with murder or manslaughter.
"They can be charged with murder, it depends on the evidence that comes to hand," the spokeswoman said.
"They could be charged with manslaughter or they could be charged with murder."
The government’s Australian Institute of Criminology released a report last week which said half of the nation’s 20,000 to 30,000 bushfires each year are deliberate.
In New South Wales state, police said they were questioning a 31-year-old man over a bushfire allegedly deliberately lit Saturday at Peats Ridge, north of Sydney.
South Australia Premier Mike Rann said at least 20 percent of fires in the state this summer had been set by arsonists, with another 20 percent the result of "stupidity or negligence."
"These people are terrorists within our nation, they are the enemy within and we have to be increasingly vigilant about them," he told reporters.
New South Wales Premier Nathan Rees said arsonists faced a maximum 25 years’ jail.
"We will throw the book at you if you are caught," he said. "This is not fun, this is not clever, this is something that can kill people."
Victoria’s Country Fire Authority said one or more arsonists had relit fires which had been brought under control Saturday in the Gippsland region, in the state’s east.
"We know we do have someone who is lighting fires in this community," CFA deputy chief of operations Steve Warrington told ABC radio.
"While we often think it’s spotting (embers spreading the flames), we also know that there are people lighting fires deliberately."
Federal opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull said those responsible for starting fires must be caught.
"It is difficult to imagine a more horrific crime than arson," he told reporters.
"All Australians will expect the authorities to have the police to… be absolutely relentless in tracking down those responsible and ensuring they’re brought to justice."