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Australians mourn the wildfire casualties

AUSTRALIANS mourned the victims of deadly wildfires at church services across the country yesterday as news emerged of a class-action lawsuit against a power company over one of the blazes.

More than 180 people were killed and 1,800 homes destroyed when about 400 blazes tore across Victoria state on February 7 in Australia's worst wildfire disaster. Police have arrested one man on arson charges connected to one fire and suspected foul play in at least one other.

A law firm lodged a suit in Victoria's Supreme Court against power supplier SP Ausnet alleging negligence for allowing an overhead power line to fall, starting a wildfire, The Age newspaper reported. SP Ausnet was not available to comment.

Residents of towns in the 3,900-square kilometer fire zone gathered at church services yesterday. At Whittlesea, a town about 100 kilometers north of the state capital Melbourne, about 200 people attended Christ Church for a service led by the Archbishop of Melbourne, Philip Freier, and attended by Governor-General Quentin Bryce.

"A service like this brings everyone together," Whittlesea volunteer firefighter Jeff Rowden said after the service. "I think it's good to be around people who ... know what you've been through so we can get back to our normal lives."

Visitors from outside the fire-ravaged area also attended to show support.

"I didn't know anybody directly affected by the fires but this is something that's touched the hearts of everybody," said Sharyn Mitzzi, who drove from Melbourne.

Whittlesea has become a center for relief efforts for neighboring towns such as Kinglake, where scores of people died and which was almost completely destroyed.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd also attended services in Victoria and went to Kinglake in the afternoon.

Firefighters, including some flown in from the United States, continued to battle about a dozen blazes in Victoria.


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