/ 13 February 2009

Australia arrests arson suspect after deadly fires

Australian authorities charged a man on Friday with arson causing death in connection with one of a swarm of wildfires that killed more than 181 people and destroyed hundreds of homes.

The unidentified man was arrested in a country town in Victoria, the southeastern state ravaged by the fires last weekend, and moved to state capital Melbourne for his own safety, police said.

”He was charged with arson causing death, intentionally or recklessly lighting a bush fire and possessing child pornography,” police said in a statement.

He was remanded to appear in the Melbourne Magistrate’s Court on February 16, 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 previously called for any arsonists proven to have lit the fires to ”rot in jail”.

Some survivors of the blazes which wiped out whole towns and scorched about 450 000ha of land have said the culprits should be tied to horses and torn apart or doused in fuel and set alight.

Police have launched the biggest arson investigation in Australian history after revealing that at least two of the fires were deliberately lit.

A blaze that completely destroyed the town of Marysville northeast of Melbourne, killing up to 100 people, is being treated as suspicious, police have said.

The man arrested on Friday is accused of lighting a fire at Churchill, east of Melbourne, on February 7 which killed about 20 people, destroyed a reported 36 000ha of land and continues to rage out control.

About 21 wildfires were still burning across Victoria on Friday but firefighters were taking advantage of cooler conditions to work on fire containment measures.

The destruction wrought by Australia’s bush inferno came into shocking focus on Friday when authorities almost doubled the number of homes destroyed to more than 1 800.

”The number has jumped from 1 069 yesterday to 1 831 properties today,” Emergency Services Commissioner Bruce Esplin said.

The scale of destruction had emerged as more resources including military planes were engaged in the damage assessment and clean-up operation across a vast area of farms and eucalypt forest, he said.

Heatwave temperatures approaching 50 degrees Celsius combined with strong winds and tinder-dry scrub to produce the firestorm on Saturday.

Authorities expect the death toll to rise beyond 200 as more charred ruins are inspected for bodies.

A new fire warning for nearby Healesville was downgraded after traumatised residents spent the night preparing to defend their homes again from flames and embers bursting out of the surrounding bush.

But they were told to remain vigilant because of a ”high level of fire activity”.

”People in the area need to remain alert as there may not be a warning should conditions change unexpectedly,” the Country Fire Authority said.

Healesville resident Adam Menary told national radio that people in the town were anxious. ”It’s a pretty tough time for people,” he said.

Millions of dollars were pouring into a Red Cross relief fund as newspapers continued to fill their pages with tales of survival, grief and desperation from families returning to the warped and charred remains of their homes.

Australian actor Nicole Kidman and her husband, country singer Keith Urban, pledged 500 000 Australian dollars ($327 000) to a Red Cross relief fund through a fundraising telethon broadcast on the Nine Network overnight.

A Red Cross spokesperson said about $66-million had been raised for the relief fund through public donations, but ”many millions more” had been pledged through the telethon and corporate and government donations. — Sapa-AFP