Australian authorities charged a man today with arson causing death in connection with one of a swarm of wildfires which killed more than 181 people and destroyed hundreds of homes. The unidentified man was arrested in a country town in Victoria, the southeastern state ravaged by the fires last weekend, and moved to state capital Melbourne for his own safety, police said. "He was charged with arson causing death, intentionally or recklessly lighting a bush fire and possessing child pornography," police said in a statement.
He was remanded to appear in the Melbourne Magistrates Court on Feb 16, and the media were ordered not to publish any material which could identify him amid public outrage that the infernos could have been maliciously lit. The charges carry a maximum sentence of 25 years' jail and the Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd has previously called for any arsonists proven to have lit the fires to "rot in jail."
Police have launched the biggest arson investigation in Australian history after revealing that at least two of the fires were deliberately lit. A blaze that completely destroyed the town of Marysville north-east of Melbourne, killing up to 100 people, is being treated as suspicious, police have said. The man arrested today is accused of lighting a fire at Churchill, east of Melbourne, on Feb 7 which killed some 20 people, destroyed a reported 36,000 hectares of land and continues to rage out control.
About 21 wildfires were still burning across Victoria on Friday but firefighters were taking advantage of cooler conditions to work on fire containment measures. The destruction wrought by Australia's bush inferno came into shocking focus today when authorities almost doubled the number of homes destroyed to more than 1,800. "The number has jumped from 1,069 yesterday to 1,831 properties today," the emergency services commissioner, Bruce Esplin, said.
The scale of destruction had emerged as more resources including military planes were engaged in the damage assessment and clean-up operation across a vast area of farms and eucalyptus forest, he said. Heatwave temperatures approaching 50 degrees Celsius combined with strong winds and tinder-dry scrub to produce the firestorm on Saturday. Authorities expect the death toll to rise beyond 200 as more charred ruins are inspected for bodies.