Australia declares bushfire disaster a crime scene

SYDNEY Mon Feb 9, 2009 6:29pm EST

1 of 26. The remains of St. Andrew's church is seen after it was destroyed by fire at the community of Kinglake, north east of Melbourne, Australia February 9, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Rick Rycroft/Pool

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SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australian police treated the country's entire bushfire disaster zone as a crime scene on Tuesday as investigators combed through a blackened wasteland to find clues to the culprits behind the country's deadliest fires.

Arson investigators began their work even as about 25 fires still raged across southern Victoria, including some of the hardest-hit areas north of Melbourne where so far 173 people have been confirmed dead, many burned in cars and their own homes.

"All of the fires have been treated as a crime scene," a police spokesman said, adding that arson investigators from up and down the country were descending on the disaster zone. "We do believe they may have been lit deliberately, but we can't confirm it," the spokeswoman said.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has already branded the unknown culprits as "mass murderers" and Victoria state has ordered an official inquiry into the causes of the wild fires, which sent four-storeys-high sheets of flame racing through towns and farms.

Arson is often involved in Australian bushfires which break out every summer but rarely kill anywhere near half as many as the number of people killed in Victoria state's weekend infernos.

Australia's previously worst bushfire was the Ash Wednesday fires of 1983 which killed 75 people and destroyed more than 2,000 homes. The toll from the weekend's fires, which are still burning in some parts of Victoria, is expected to climb further.

Police said convicted arsonists could face a murder charge and appealed to survivors of the bushfires to come forward with any evidence of suspicious activity.

"We have got arson investigators on the scene but the problem at the moment is that the fires are still burning and the sites are still so hot, so it's difficult for the investigators," the police spokesman said.

Prime Minister Rudd was momentarily speechless on Monday when asked on national TV for his thoughts on the suspicions of arson.

"What do you say about anyone like that? I don't know, just, there's no words to describe it, other than it's mass murder."

Wildfires are a natural annual event in Australia, but this year a combination of scorching weather, drought and tinder-dry bush has created prime conditions.

So far, about 3,500 square km (1,350 sq miles) have been burned in the Victoria fires, with about 3,400 firefighters still battling the blazes, the state's Country Fire Authority said.

The fires, and major floods in the Queensland in the north, will put pressure on Rudd who is due to deliver a new climate policy in May. Green politicians are citing the extreme weather to back a tougher climate policy.

Scientists say Australia, with its harsh environment, is set to be one of the nations most affected nations by climate change.

Victoria state has ordered a Royal commission of inquiry, which has sweeping powers, to probe all aspects of the bushfires, including causes and also a review of bushfire safety guidelines.

Officials say the golden rule of surviving forest fires is to evacuate early or fight to the bitter end, but experts say that it appears many victims panicked and fled at the worst time. Some were incinerated in cars as they tried to outrun the flames.

(Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)

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