Residents Return To Destroyed Homes In Australia

By: AP
By: AP

Fire

KINGLAKE, Australia -- Residents of towns scorched off the map by the worst wildfires in Australia's history returned to their homes for the first time Wednesday and found scenes of utter devastation.

Police said an investigation by arson specialists turned up signs of at least one case of foul play and a suspect was being sought. For the first day since Saturday's inferno, the official death toll did not rise Wednesday. It stood at 181, though officials said it would exceed 200.

Victoria state Premier John Brumby expressed concern about the emotional impact of the sight of the destruction on survivors, especially those who had not seen television footage.

"Where do you start? Where do you start?" said Peter Denson, standing blank-faced amid the ruins of his home in Kinglake, where at least 39 people were killed and the town all but destroyed.

The carpenter, 58, has lived in Kinglake since 1977. He wants to rebuild, but his house, now a blackened pile of timber, bricks and twisted metal, was not insured. He couldn't afford it.

"It's like a big atom bomb has gone off," said Denson.

After the fires, authorities sealed off some towns because the grim task of collecting bodies from collapsed buildings was proceeding slowly and because they wanted to prevent residents from disturbing potential crime scenes. Embers were still posing a threat of flare-ups.

While there is free access to many areas in the fire zone, tensions rose as residents demanded to return to check on their homes, pets and whatever's left behind. Police granted some restricted access on Wednesday, and urged people to be patient.

Brumby said there could be 50 to 100 fatalities just in the small township of Marysville, where so far only eight residents have been confirmed dead. The town remains sealed off.

"There are still deceased persons in homes," Brumby said. Police, fire officials and soldiers have been there days, but "they've still not been able to identify and remove all bodies."

Marysville had a population of 518 in 2006, an official census shows. It was almost completely destroyed in the fire.

Arson specialists have completed the initial stage of their investigation and found six main sources of Saturday's fires.

They found foul play in one case - near the town of Churchill, about 90 miles (140 kilometers) southeast of the state capital of Melbourne - and a suspect was being sought.

"Is there an arrest imminent? No. Are we progressing the investigation in a positive manner? Yes," said assistant commissioner Dannye Moloney, head of the massive investigation.

Of the other five fire sources, four were not suspicious and one, the Marysville fire, was not yet determined. An estimated 60,000 fires burn each year in Australia, most of which are lit accidentally or by lightning strikes or power lines.

Australia's top law officer, federal Attorney General Robert McLelland, said Wednesday anyone found guilty of lighting a deadly fire could face life in prison if convicted.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd told the Seven Network late Tuesday "they should be allowed to rot in jail."

Residents returned to Kinglake, about 70 miles (130 kilometers) north of Melbourne, picking their way past emergency workers were removing burned debris and cutting down trees that appeared ready to fall. Power lines - the electricity supply long cut - were strewn across some streets.

Some houses bore makeshift signs with messages from survivors to loved ones who might come looking for them.

"All out ... we shall return," said one sign.

More than 400 fires ripped through Victoria on Saturday, destroying more than 1,000 houses, leaving some 5,000 people homeless, and scorching 1,100 square miles (2,850 square kilometers) of land.

The blazes were fed by 60 mph (100 kph) winds, record heat and a severe drought.

The Bureau of Meteorology resealed its latest information Wednesday on just how extreme Saturday's conditions were: High temperature of 115 degrees Fahrenheit (46.4 Celsius) in Melbourne shattered the city's record of 114 F set on Jan. 13, 1939 - a day known as Black Friday for wildfires that killed 71 people.

Thousands of mostly volunteer firefighters were still battling more than a dozen fires across the state on Wednesday. The weather was cool, but gusting winds constantly threatened efforts to get them under control. Forecasters said temperatures could rise again by the weekend.

Some of the survivors were living in tents erected by emergency services on sports fields. Others stayed with friends or at relief centers.

Rudd on Wednesday ordered officials to loosen regulations giving survivors access to a package of 10 million Australian dollars ($6.6 million) cash payments. Earlier, journalist Gary Hughes, who lost his home and belongings in the fires, published account of being told by officials he could not get any money without presenting a bank statement or other identity documents.

The Red Cross said its government-backed wildfire fund had received more than 33 million Australian dollars ($22 million). Indonesia pledged $1 million to help rebuild schools and other public buildings destroyed in the fire and said it would send forensic experts to help identify the dead.

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