Australian Death Toll to "Top 200"

By: CBS News
By: CBS News

MELBOURNE, Australia - The leader of the Australian state hardest hit by the country's worst-ever wildfires said Tuesday the death toll would exceed 200. The confirmed death toll stood at 181 Tuesday evening, but Victoria state Premier John Brumby said the coroner had identified another 50 bodies that had not been counted in the official death toll.

Brumby told reporters that the toll would "exceed 200 deaths."

Authorities searching for answers to the carnage said Tuesday they would rethink policies allowing residents to decide for themselves whether to evacuate their homes.

Officials defended their preparation and actions during the fires that swept unchecked across southeastern Australia last weekend, saying the weather conditions were so extreme that it was almost impossible to avoid some level of catastrophe.

But they agreed all current policies would have to be reviewed to prevent a similar disaster from happening again.

Teams moving into towns burned out by the inferno found charred bodies on roadsides and in crashed cars - grim signs of futile attempts to flee raging wildfires fed by 60 mph winds, record heat and drought.

Suspicion that some of the 400 blazes were caused by arson has led police to declare crime scenes in some incinerated towns. Police assistant Commissioner Dannye Moloney, who was appointed Tuesday to head the task force investigating the fires, said officials were preparing to release a sketch of a suspect in one of the fires, which killed 21 people.

CBS News correspondent Barry Petersen reported that the usual sentence for arson in Australia is anything up to 25 years in prison. However, if someone is apprehended in this case, they're expected to face murder charges, which can carry a life sentence.

The fires near Melbourne, a southern city of some 4 million people that is Australia's second largest, destroyed more than 750 homes, left 5,000 people homeless, and burned 1,100 square miles of land, the Victoria Country Fire Service said.

Three days after the worst single day of wildfires in Australia's history, officials said their ferocity, pace and breadth made them impossible to fight effectively.

Still, this disaster would likely rewrite the books on what is considered best practice for handling fires, including the widespread policy of allowing residents in high-risk areas to decide for themselves whether to stay or flee.

The policy recognizes that Australia's wildfire services - made up largely of volunteers - lack the resources to protect every house; thus, homeowners are allowed to try to protect their own property.

"It is the application of that policy and a lack of an alternative that we need to work on," Country Fire Authority chief Russel Rees told reporters Tuesday. But he conceded that evacuation orders were unlikely to be heeded by all, and would be hard to enforce during a fire emergency.

In Victoria, there is no formal alert system of text messages or phone calls to warn residents of approaching wildfires, though the state's Country Fire Authority regularly posts updates to its Web site on individual blazes along with advice on what residents should do. The service's updates are also broadcast over the radio.

In the worst conditions, like Saturday's, the direction and intensity of fires can change so quickly that sirens, e-mail and other possible warning systems are not effective, officials say.

Victoria state Premier John Brumby said a national emergency warning system for wildfires should be considered, and that he wrote to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd about the idea months ago.

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