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Arsonists may have set blazes in Australia

AUSTRALIAN police declared incinerated towns crime scenes yesterday, and the prime minister spoke of "mass murder" after investigators said arsonists may have set some of the country's worst wildfires in history. The death toll rose to 135.

There were no quick answers, but officials said panic and the high speed of the fire front - driven by winds of nearly 100 kilometers per hour and temperatures as high as 47 degrees Celsius - probably accounted for the unusually high toll.

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?" Rudd said. "There's no words to describe it, other than it's mass murder."

More than a dozen fires still burned uncontrollably across the state, though conditions were much cooler than on Saturday.

Evidence of heart-wrenching loss abounded. 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. The Victoria Country Fire Service said some 2,200 square kilometers were burned out.

"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."

But there were also extraordinary tales of survival.

One man leapt into his pool to escape the flames as they roared over his house, leaving it unscarred but razing his neighbor's. Another woman sheltered with her children in a wombat burrow as the worst of the fire passed.

Mark Strubing sheltered in a drainage pipe as his property, outside Kinglake, burned.

He said he and a companion rolled around in the water at the bottom to wet their clothing as the flames started licking the pipe: "How we didn't burn I don't know."

Elsewhere in Kinglake, Jack Barber fled just ahead of the flames with his wife and a neighbor, driving in two cars packed with birth certificates, insurance documents, two cats, four kittens and a dog.

"We had a fire plan," he said yesterday. "The plan was to get the hell out of there before the flames came."

Their escape route blocked by downed power lines and a tree, they took shelter first at a school, then, when that burned, in an exposed cricket ground ringed by trees, where they found five others.

"All around us were 30-meter flames ringing the oval, and we ran where the wind wasn't. It was swirling all over the place," Barber said. "For three hours, we dodged the wind."

The wind surged and changed direction quickly time and again on Saturday, 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.

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.


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