Australia hunts for arsonists after deadly forest fires (Roundup)February 12th, 2009 - 11:48 pm ICT by IANS
Sydney, Feb 12 (DPA) Australian police Thursday released two men they arrested on suspicion of deliberately lighting fires in forests north of Melbourne.
At least 1,200 houses were razed, 450,000 hectares blackened and 5,000 rendered homeless in weekend fires and the police believe some of them were the work of arsonists.
The official death toll from the fires stands at 181 but officials say the final body count will be well over 200.
Victoria Police Chief Commissioner Christine Nixon said it was very likely the fire that ravaged the town of Marysville was deliberately lit.
Marysville, which had a population of 500, has only a dozen buildings left standing and there are fears that up to one in five of its residents were killed.
“We’re very focused on this issue,” Nixon said. “We’re asking again for the community to come forward - anybody who is suspicious, anybody who has concerns.”
Behind the Do-Not-Cross tape in Marysville, forensic teams were going through wrecked buildings and burned-out cars to locate and then identify bodies - something that police spokesman Steve Fontana said might not always be possible.
“It’s very difficult to identify in some cases whether it’s more than one body in a spot,” he said. “So it’s really difficult to say ‘this is the number of people we’ve had from one area.’”
Twelve major fires were still burning but fire chiefs said lower temperatures and rain had reduced the threat to homes.
Nixon confirmed that more fires had been lit since Saturday’s inferno.
“You and I would just be staggered by that, but that’s what we’re certainly seeing. We’ve been investigating those as well,” she said.
Police were also looking for looters who residents said were stealing from abandoned or burned out properties.
Those who lost their homes have been offered temporary accommodation at five military bases in Victoria. The government is also giving cash hand-outs to the dispossessed and paying funeral expenses.
Peter Marshall, who heads the union for Australia’s 13,000 professional firefighters, said global warming was increasing the intensity and frequency of forest fires.
“What used to be a fire that could have been contained to a small area, we’re going to see evolve into a wildfire like we’ve seen in Victoria - and that’s going to be a regular occurrence,” he said.
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