World News

Australia mourns bushfire victims

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia mourned the victims of deadly bushfires at church services across the country on Sunday while the government vowed to create an early warning system to try to avoid a repetition of the disaster.

The fires in the state of Victoria, the worst natural disaster to hit the country in more than a century, have left at least 181 people dead, a death toll that is expected to rise. The bushfires destroyed more than 1,800 homes and left 7,000 people homeless.

In the town of Wandong, where several people died, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd paid tribute to the community for its efforts during a memorial service. “You, as this community, full of courage, reliance and compassion, I salute each and every one of you,” he said.

Authorities said it would be weeks before they would be able to say that the fires are definitely put out. Controlled burning was carried out over the weekend in an effort to stop the fires from spreading.

Victoria state’s emergency response centre said on Sunday eight fires were still burning, four less than on Saturday, and although some were producing a lot of smoke, cooler temperatures and favourable winds were helping the firefighters.

“We had favourable conditions overnight which has allowed us to go in and do a lot of work,” a spokesman said.

The government said on Sunday it would push to establish a bushfire early warning system, after years of delays.

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“Work is already in train, legislation needs to be changed and legislation is being brought to the parliament,” Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard told Channel Nine, acknowledging that some “technical issues” remained to be overcome.

The authorities have widely been criticised for the lack of such a system, although Victoria state Premier John Brumby has questioned whether it could have prevented the devastation caused by last weekend’s fires.

More than A$91 million (41.6 million pounds) has been raised for the bushfire victims. Rudd said average payouts of A$10,000 per family would be made available from the fund for victims.

A Royal Commission of Inquiry has been established to examine what caused the disaster and one man has been charged with “arson causing death” in relation to one of the fires.

Researchers say around half of the bushfires in Australia are lit deliberately. Rudd has described the fires as “mass murder.”

Editing by Valerie Lee