Residents of towns scorched off the map by Australia's worst-ever wildfires today returned to their homes for the first time and found scenes of utter devastation. Police said they were looking into reports of suspicious people picking through the ruins of some destroyed houses, as rumors grew that looting was taking place in abandoned areas. "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, in Saturday's inferno.
Mr Denson, a carpenter, has lived in Kinglake since 1977. He said he wants to rebuild, but his house, now a blackened pile of timber, bricks and twisted metal, was not insured because he could not afford it. "It's like a big atom bomb has gone off," said Mr Denson. Authorities had sealed off some towns because the grim task of collecting bodies from collapsed buildings was proceeding slowly and because authorities wanted to prevent residents from disturbing crime scenes. Embers were still posing a threat of flare-ups.
Police say they suspect some of the fires were deliberately set, and that at least one suspect is being pursued. Australia's top law officer, federal attorney general Robert McLelland, said today that anyone found guilty of lighting a fire that caused multiple deaths would face life in prison if convicted. The Australian prime minister, Kevin Rudd, told the Seven Network yesterday "they should be allowed to rot in jail."
Victoria's chief commissioner of police, Christine Nixon, said there had been reports of suspicious behavior amid the destruction. "We're having some reports of looting, but not a great deal," Ms Nixon said. "There are some reports from some people who are seeing strange people who are sifting through parts of houses that have been burnt." It was not clear if those people owned the houses, or were searching for food, clothes or other necessities.
Residents were allowed to return to Kinglake, about 130 kilometres north of the Victoria state capital of Melbourne, but their progress was slow because emergency workers were still 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. While there is free access to many areas in the fire zone, tensions have been rising in recent days as demands rose for police to let residents back to the worst-hit places to check on their homes and check on pets and other animals left behind. Police urged people to be patient. The Victoria premier, John Brumby, said some survivors had not even seen television footage of the disaster's scale and he was worried about the emotional impact on people seeing the destruction for the first time. More than 400 fires ripped through Victoria on Saturday, fed by 100kph winds, record heat and a severe drought. The official death toll stood at 181 today, but bodies were still being collected and Mr Brumby said it would "exceed 200 deaths." *AP