The federal government said Thursday it was fast-tracking a nationwide fire alert telephone system after thousands of people were caught by surprise by the most deadly wildfires in Australia's history.
Privacy laws and bickering between states over funding had derailed plans to have such a system installed before the weekend blazes in Victoria state killed at least 181, The Australian newspaper reported Thursday.
Officials said the death toll could exceed 200 and thousands of mostly volunteer firefighters were still battling more than a dozen fires across the state a day after some residents of towns scorched off the map returned home.
Attorney General Robert McClelland said the plan had been before the previous government since 2004, but state governments had yet to agree and laws needed to be changed.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's government had "really driven this issue hard" since it was elected in 2007, he said. "Clearly a warning system would be useful," McClelland told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio. "That is why it has been a real priority for the Rudd government."
McClelland said he had advocated such a system that sends a barrage of automated messages to all phones in a targeted geographic area since he saw a similar system in action in Hawaii David Quilty, managing director of the telco Telstra Corp. which is working on the system, told ABC that the government "is now looking to move expeditiously" to change privacy laws that prevent the national telephone number data base from being accessed by emergency services.
Residents of destroyed towns returned for the first time Wednesday to find twisted metal and blackened debris where their homes once stood.
Police said an investigation by arson specialists turned up signs of at least one case of foul play and a suspect was being sought. "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. "It's like a big atom bomb has gone off," he added. But rain over Wednesday night led to several fire alerts being downgraded. But residents in some areas were warned to remain vigilant as large fires continue to rage, Country Fire Authority spokesman Mark Glover told the ABC Thursday.
"It's dampened down things in the southern part quite nicely," Glover said.
After the fires, authorities sealed off some towns because the grim task of collecting bodies from collapsed buildings was proceeding slowly and because they wanted to prevent residents from disturbing potential crime scenes. Embers were still posing a threat of flare-ups.
While there is free access to many areas in the fire zone, tensions rose as residents demanded to return to check on their homes, pets and whatever is left behind. Police granted some restricted access on Wednesday, and urged people to be patient. Victorian state Premier John Brumby said there could be 50 to 100 fatalities just in the small township of Marysville, where so far only eight residents have been confirmed dead. The town remains sealed off.
Marysville had a population of 518 in 2006, an official census shows. It was almost completely destroyed in the fire. Arson specialists have completed the initial stage of their investigation and found six main sources of Saturday's fires. They found foul play in one case _ near the town of Churchill, about 90 miles (140 kilometers) southeast of the state capital of Melbourne _ and a suspect was being sought.
Of the other five fire sources, four were not suspicious and one, the Marysville fire, was not yet determined. An estimated 60,000 fires burn each year in Australia, most of which are lit accidentally or by lightning strikes or power lines. McClelland said Wednesday anyone found guilty of lighting a deadly fire could face life in prison if convicted. Residents returned to Kinglake, about 70 miles (130 kilometers) north of Melbourne, picking their way past emergency workers were 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. More than 400 fires ripped through Victoria on Saturday, destroying more than 1,000 houses, leaving some 5,000 people homeless, and scorching 1,100 square miles (2,850 square kilometers) of land.
The blazes were fed by 60 mph (100 kph) winds, record heat and a severe drought.
The Bureau of Meteorology resealed its latest information Wednesday on just how extreme Saturday's conditions were: High temperature of 115 degrees Fahrenheit (46.4 Celsius) in Melbourne shattered the city's record of 114 F set on Jan. 13, 1939 _ a day known as Black Friday for wildfires that killed 71 people. Some of the survivors were living in tents erected by emergency services on sports fields. Others stayed with friends or at relief centers.
Rudd on Wednesday ordered officials to loosen regulations giving survivors access to a package of 10 million Australian dollars ($6.6 million) cash payments. Earlier, journalist Gary Hughes, who lost his home and belongings in the fires, published account of being told by officials he could not get any money without presenting a bank statement or other identity documents.
The Red Cross said its government-backed wildfire fund had received more than 33 million Australian dollars ($22 million). Indonesia pledged $1 million to help rebuild schools and other public buildings destroyed in the fire and said it would send forensic experts to help identify the dead.