Whittlesea: Suspicions that some of Australia’s worst wildfires ever were deliberately set led police to declare crime scenes in incinerated towns on Monday, and a clearly emotional prime minister likened the alleged arson to mass murder. The death toll stood at 131.
The scale of the carnage, growing daily, has shocked a nation that endures deadly firestorms every few years. There were no quick answers, but officials said panic and the freight-train speed of the firefront probably accounted for the unusually high toll.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, visibly upset during a television interview, reflected the country’s disgust at the idea that arsonists may have set some of the 400 fires that devastated Victoria state, or helped them jump containment lines.
“What do you say about anyone like that?” Rudd said. “There’s no words to describe it, other than it’s mass murder.”
The country’s top law officer, Attorney General Robert McClelland, said that people found to have deliberately set fires could face murder charges. Murder can carry a life sentence.
More than one dozen fires still burned uncontrollably across the state, though conditions were much cooler than on Saturday, which saw record-high heat and winds of up to 60 mph (100 kph).
At least 750 homes were destroyed on Saturday, the Victoria Country Fire Service said. Some 2,200 kilometers of land were burned out.
Officials said both the tolls of human life and property would almost certainly rise as they reached deeper into the disaster zone, and forecasters said temperatures would rise again later in the week, posing a risk of further flare-ups.
More than 4,000 people registered themselves with the Australian Red Cross, which posted lists of names at some 20 emergency relief centers, the agency said. At one such center in Wittlesea, 12 kilometers from Kinglake, survivors scoured the lists looking for missing relatives.
Victoria Police Commissioner Christine Nixon said investigators had strong suspicions that at least one of the deadly blazes known as the Churchill fire after a ruined town was deliberately set. And it could not be ruled out for other fires.
Nixon said the investigation would be long and complex, and cautioned against jumping to conclusions.
John Handmer, a wildfire safety expert at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, said research had shown that people in the path of a blaze must get out early or stay inside until the worst has past.
Even if a house is set ablaze, it will burn more slowly and with less intensity that a wildfire and residents have a better chance of escape, he said.
Extraordinary survival tales were also told.
Jack Barber described how he fled his house in Pheasant Creek near Kinglake with his wife and spent Saturday night on a sports field dodging flames that licked at them from different directions as wind gusts blew around.
They drove out of the disaster zone to Wittlesea on Sunday.
“There were dead horses, live horses, kangaroos bouncing down the road with flames at their back. It was horrific,” Barber said.
Daryl Hogan of Wandong, 20 kilometers north of Wittlesea, said he leapt into his pool to escape the flames as they roared over his house, leaving it unscarred but razing the neighbor’s.
Nine Network television reported that one woman, Nesh Sinclair, sheltered with her children in the burrow of a wombat as the worst of the fire passed.
Victoria state Premier John Brumby on Monday announced a royal commission would be held. A royal commission is among the highest-level investigations that can be called under Australian law. Usually, a former judge is appointed to take extensive evidence and make formal findings that can lead to charges or changes in the law.
Blazes have been burning for weeks across several states in southern Australia. A long-running drought in the south the worst in a century had left forests extra dry and Saturday’s fire conditions in Victoria were said to be the worst ever in Australia.
In New South Wales state on Monday, a 31-year-old man appeared in court charged with arson in connection to a wildfire that burned north of Sydney at the weekend. No loss of life was reported there. He faces up to 10 years in prison.