Police declared incinerated towns crime scenes today and the prime minister spoke of "mass murder" as the death toll rose to 166.
Australian fire zone a crime scene
WHITTLESEA, AUSTRALIA // Police declared incinerated towns crime scenes today, and the prime minister spoke of "mass murder" after investigators said arsonists may have set some of Australia's worst wildfires in history. The death toll rose to 166. There were no quick answers, but officials said panic and the freight-train speed of the fire front - driven by 60mph winds and temperatures as high as 47 C - probably accounted for the unusually high toll. The prime minister, Kevin Rudd, visibly upset during a television interview, reflected the country's disgust at the idea that arsonists may have set some of the 400 fires that devastated Victoria state, or helped them jump containment lines. What do you say about anyone like that?" Mr Rudd said. "There's no words to describe it, other than it's mass murder." From the air, the landscape was blackened as far as the eye could see. In at least one town, bodies still lay in the streets. Entire forests were reduced to leafless, charred trunks, farmland to ashes. Victoria police spokeswoman Christie Pengally said the death toll as of late Monday was 166. "What we've seen, I think, is that people didn't have enough time, in some cases," Victoria Police Commissioner Christine Nixon told a news conference. "We're finding (bodies) on the side of roads, in cars that crashed." The Victoria Country Fire Service said about 2,200 square kilometres were burnt out. More than a dozen fires still burnt uncontrollably across the state, though conditions were much cooler than on Saturday, when the wind surged and changed direction quickly time and again, fanning the blazes and making their direction utterly unpredictable from minute to minute. Local media had been issuing warnings in the days leading up to the weekend, but many people guarding their homes with backyard hoses would have been outside when the wind changed, and thus could have missed the new warnings. At least 750 homes were destroyed on Saturday, the Victoria Country Fire Service said. Officials said both the tolls of human life and property would almost certainly rise as they reached deeper into the disaster zone, and forecasters said temperatures would rise again later in the week, posing a risk of further flare-ups. Police Commissioner Nixon said investigators had strong suspicions that at least one of the deadly blazes - known as the Churchill fire after a ruined town - was deliberately set. And it could not be ruled out for other fires. She cautioned against jumping to conclusions. The country's top law officer, Attorney General Robert McClelland, said people found to have deliberately set fires could face murder charges. Murder can carry a life sentence. Blazes have been burning for weeks across several states in southern Australia. A long-running drought in the south - the worst in a century - had left forests extra dry and Saturday's fire conditions in Victoria were said to be the worst ever in Australia. In New South Wales state on Monday, a 31-year-old man appeared in court charged with arson in connection with a wildfire that burnt north of Sydney over the weekend. No loss of life was reported there. He faces up to 10 years in prison. The country's deadliest fires before the current spate killed 75 people in 1983. In 2006, nine people died on South Australia's Eyre Peninsula. * AP