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Suspect charged with arson in Australian wildfire

Police charged a man with deadly arson in one of southern Australia's wildfires and put him in protective custody as survivors expressed fury that anyone could set such a blaze.

world Updated: Feb 14, 2009 21:50 IST
Tanalee Smith
Tanalee Smith

Police charged a man with deadly arson in one of southern Australia's wildfires and put him in protective custody as survivors expressed fury that anyone could set such a blaze.

Authorities also doubled the property toll on Friday, saying more than 1,800 homes were destroyed in the Feb. 7 blazes. Officials say 181 people were killed and expect that total eventually to exceed 200.

Firefighters were still working Saturday to contain about a dozen blazes, though weather conditions were favorable. The suspect, whose identity was banned from publication by a magistrate because of the risk of reprisal attacks against him or his family, was formally charged with one count of arson causing death, one of intentionally lighting a wildfire, and one of possessing child pornography, Victoria police said. Detectives arrested the man Friday and questioned him for several hours in Morwell, 75 miles (120 kilometers) east of the state capital Melbourne, police said. He was charged in a magistrate's court, but did not appear in the courtroom, the Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported.

He was ordered held in custody and to undergo psychiatric evaluation, ABC said. He was taken to Melbourne, where another hearing was set for Monday.

The national news agency Australian Associated Press reported that some people outside the Morwell courthouse shouted abuse at a van that they believed was carrying him away.

"We have a very emotive environment out there," said Victoria Police Assistant Commissioner Dannye Moloney.

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has described the possibility of arson as "mass murder."

In interviews, residents who lost their homes expressed their anger at anyone who might have ignited the fires. "Words can't describe how I feel about them," Ruth Halyburton told The Associated Press. "I'm a Christian, but I don't think too kindly of people if they go light a match and destroy people's property and lives. They don't have a brain in their head." Gavin Wigginton, whose home was destroyed, said, "If this person is not insane, then I think he should be in jail for a very long time."

If found guilty, the man faces a maximum penalty of 25 years in prison for the deadly arson charge, and a maximum of 15 years on the second arson charge. Five years in prison is the maximum penalty for possessing child porn.

The arson charges were connected to a fire near the town of Churchill, about 125 miles southeast of Melbourne, that killed at least 21 people. It was one of hundreds of fires that blackened 1,500 square miles of forests and farms in Victoria state. Experts say arson can be hard to prove. Physical evidence usually goes up in smoke or is taken away by arsonists, said Thomas Fee, a former president of the U.S. International Association of Arson Investigators.

Even more difficult to prove is murder by arson. Wildfires often join one another, making it tough to link a fire set by an arsonist with the blaze that eventually kills people, said Damon Muller, who has researched arsonists for the Australian Institute of Criminology.

The scale of the disaster became clearer Friday, when the state government said it had reached a more thorough tally of homes destroyed and put that number at 1,831 _ more than double its earlier figure of 762. The number of people left homeless or who fled their homes and have not returned also rose to 7,000, from 5,000.

Police say they believe at least one other fire _ the one that all but destroyed the town of Marysville, about 60 miles north of Melbourne _ resulted from foul play.

Marysville is believed to have the biggest toll of any place _ up to 100 people killed in a population of 500.

A group of about 300 Marysville residents will be allowed to return to the town Saturday for the first time _ one week after the fires. They will be loaded on buses and driven through Marysville, but will not be allowed out of the vehicles.

Police say the town is considered a crime scene and they do not want potential evidence to be disturbed.

"It'll be hard," Halyburton said. "It'll probably be the hardest thing in my life."

She already knows her home is gone, and she and her husband, a pastor, plan to help counsel other residents.

"Our main aim _ and we're all behind each other _ is to go back and rebuild the town," said Bernie Culhane, 79.

First Published: Feb 14, 2009 21:49 IST