A court lifted the ban on Monday on identifying the only arson suspect so far in Australia’s recent deadly wildfires. The authorities urged people not to target him in their rage over the disaster’s almost 190 deaths.
The case of Brendan Sokaluk, a 39-year-old man accused of lighting one of hundreds of fires that swept southern Victoria state on February 7, went before a court packed with media and onlookers on Monday, but he chose to stay in police protective custody rather than attend.
Sokaluk was arrested on Friday and charged with one count of arson causing death and one of lighting a wildfire in connection to a blaze known as the Churchill fire.
He faces a maximum sentence of 25 years on the first charge, and 15 years on the second.
He was also charged with possessing child pornography, which carries a 5-year maximum sentence.
Extremely hot, dry and windy conditions on Feb. 7 fanned dozens of fires into raging infernos that reduced entire towns to ashes, destroying more than 1,800 homes and displacing some 7,500 people.
Police raised the death toll Monday to 189, from 181, and said it would rise further.
The condition of some of the remains made identifying them as human difficult, Deputy Commissioner Kieran Walshe told reporters.
Chief Commissioner Christine Nixon said it was possible some victims would never be identified because “perhaps you don’t find very much of that person.”
Detailing a previously announced, high-level inquiry in to the disaster, Victorian Premier John Brumby said it would have the broadest terms possible, examining all aspects of the fires’ causes and the preparedness of emergency services to respond. An initial report is due August 17.