Survivors made a heart-rending return on Saturday to a town burnt to ashes in Australia’s deadliest bushfires, as police picked through 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, north-east of Melbourne, for the first time since the inferno.
Marysville resident Merran Guest said she expected an emotional ride through the devastation of the once-picturesque mountain hamlet, but felt she needed to see it for herself.
”I feel anxious but I feel it’s part of the grieving process. It’s something we have to do. It’s the first step,” the former nurse told the Australian newspaper.
During their short visit, returning residents were expected to be reunited with a handful of survivors who chose to stay in Marysville and ride out the killer blaze.
A police spokesperson said the residents, most of whom fled the town as it burst into flames, would not be allowed to get off the buses and had agreed not to take photographs of the crime scene.
”There will be counsellors on the bus with the residents,” she said.
About 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 south-eastern 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 reportedly traced the origin of the fire that destroyed Marysville and severely damaged other nearby towns to a popular camping and swimming area known as Murrindindi Mill.
”We need to hear from anyone who was in this area on the day [February 7]. It may not be immediately obvious that they saw something unusual or of possible value, but it is important that we speak with them,” Detective Superintendent Paul Hollowood said in a statement.
”These fires were absolutely devastating and are causing immense pain and loss to many people.”
An unidentified man was charged with arson causing death on Friday and moved to state capital Melbourne for his own safety.
He was remanded to appear in the Melbourne Magistrate’s Court on 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”.
Some survivors of the fires have called for any arsonists responsible to be doused with fuel and set alight, but police urged restraint and respect of the justice system.
Thousands of firefighters continued to battle about 12 blazes which were still burning in Victoria on Saturday, but milder weather in the coming days was expected to make their job easier.
Sixty firefighters from the United States were on their way to help, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Friday in Washington.
”They have helped us many times to battle wildfires in the West and we are eager to demonstrate our gratitude and assist them at this critical time,” he said. – AFP