Fires spark friction as police hunt arsonists

February 11th, 2009 - 4:45 pm ICT by IANS  

Sydney, Feb 11 (DPA) Australian police said they were homing in on arsonists Wednesday as victims vented their anger over forest fires north of Melbourne expected to claim well over 200 lives.At least 1,000 houses were razed, 450,000 hectares blackened and 5,000 rendered homeless in the nation’s worst natural disaster. The official death toll from Saturday’s inferno stands at 181 but some expect the body count to go as high as 300.

Victoria state Premier John Brumby was forced to defend sealing off Marysville, where only a dozen buildings remain standing and up to 100 of the 500 residents may have perished.

“You can imagine, if people return to those areas and they return to a house… and there are still deceased persons there, the trauma of this and the impact would be quite devastating,” he told reporters.

Behind the Do-Not-Cross tape in Marysville, forensic teams are 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’.”

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

Healesville resident Aaron Smith told national broadcaster ABC that he hadn’t settled on whether he would stay or fight if fire crested the hill behind his house.

“I think I might, but I’m sure the kids and the wife will be going,” he said. “The dogs go, yeah. They’re the first things in the car, followed by the kids.”

Brumby shrugged off criticism of his “leave early or stay and fight” policy, arguing that evacuation of 500,000 people was simply not practical. “That policy has served the state very, very well for the past 20 years,” he said.

Victoria chief fire officer Russell Rees also insisted the right advice was given, despite Saturday’s being Melbourne’s hottest day on record and strong winds creating conditions for the perfect firestorm.

“People need to understand that a late departure is the most deadly,” 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.”

Brumby said it was beyond belief that, after such carnage, reports were coming in of new fires being deliberately lit.

“I think words escape us all when it comes to describing that deliberate arson,” he said.

A strike team of 125 detectives has been deployed and, before the end of the week, police expect to release photofit pictures of suspected arsonists.

“Obviously we don’t put facefits out unless we’re confident that in fact it will lead to the elimination or implication of somebody that may have been involved in these fires,” strike team leader Danny Maloney said.

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