Australia’s worst forest fires spark arsonist hunt (Lead)

February 10th, 2009 - 3:14 pm ICT by IANS  

Sydney, Feb 10 (DPA) Police Tuesday began hunting arsonists behind forest fires in Australia that are expected to have claimed over 200 lives.

Fires are still burning north of Melbourne as householders in their path make the fateful decision to stay and fight the flames or jump in their cars and flee.

The official death toll from Saturday’s inferno stands at 173, more than doubling the body count in the previous worst forest fires in 1983.

“There are still a large number of people, in excess of 50, who are… deceased but are not yet identified,” Victoria state Premier John Brumby said. “So this is going to be a significant number, it will exceed 200 deaths.”

Army bulldozers were out clearing the path for forensic teams to enter hamlets cut off by smouldering trees trunks and burned-out vehicles.

Many were caught in their cars after leaving too late, prompting fire chiefs to urge people to leave early or work up a plan to defend their property and stick with it.

“People need to understand that a late departure is the most deadly,” state chief fire officer Russell Rees said. “We’ve said, and it’s clearly evident, fires can come without warning and very rapidly, and that you may not receive a warning and you may not have a fire truck at your front gate.”

Healesville resident Paul O’Dwyer said locals were leaving rather than staying to defend their properties.

“If it gets worse, they’re gone,” he told national broadcaster ABC. “So everyone is pulling back this time. No one really wants to stay and face it after what happened at Kinglake and that.”

Kinglake and Marysville, 100 km north-east of Melbourne, have barely any buildings left standing. Altogether at least 750 houses have been lost and 350,000 hectares of forest blackened.

Fire chiefs have rejected criticism that brigades were under-staffed and were caught by surprise. David McGay, a fire captain, said that some fires were simply too intense to beat back.

“But even if I’d had 20 strike teams all that would have happened is that we would have had 50 dead firefighters as well, me included,” McGay said. “In hindsight, it’s just as well I didn’t have those teams because I would have deployed them.”

The once quaint mountain resort of Marysville has been declared a crime scene because police believe the fire there was deliberately lit.

Experts say half of forest fires are the work of arsonists, who are seldom caught because their crime is so easy to commit and comes without an obvious motive to help police in their detective work.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd described the work of arsonists as akin to “mass murder” and police in Victoria have deployed 100 detectives to catch them.

“Anyone who has seen anything, or has heard anything, we want them to come forward,” Victoria Police Commissioner Christine Nixon said. “The firefighters themselves obviously watched fires that occurred and just don’t believe that fires start those ways and could have occurred in that way.”

Criminologist Damon Muller said boredom and attention-seeking were usually the motives behind setting forest fires and that less than one percent of perpetrators are caught and prosecuted.

With fires expected to burn for weeks, brigades are being drafted in from around the country and even from abroad. New Zealand has 100 firefighters on stand-by to send and a team from the US could be on the fire-ground later this week.

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