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Man charged in Australian fires

AUSTRALIAN authorities charged a man yesterday with lighting one of the many wildfires that killed at least 180 people overall and whisked him into protective custody to guard him from public fury.

Police said the suspect was charged with one count of arson causing death and intentionally lighting a wildfire near the town of Churchill that killed at least 21 people. It was one of hundreds of fires that raged through southeastern Victoria state on February 7, leaving 7,000 people homeless and razing entire towns.

The suspect also was charged with possessing child pornography.

The disaster's official death toll was 181 as of yesterday, but efforts to find and identify victims were continuing, and officials expected the final tally to exceed 200. More than 1,800 homes and 3,900 square kilometers of forests and farms were burned.

The suspect's identity was being kept secret for his own safety, Victoria Police Assistant Commissioner Dannye Moloney told a news conference. If found guilty, the suspect faces a maximum penalty of 25 years in prison for the deadly arson charge and up to 15 years on the second arson charge.

Police have said they believe foul play was the cause of at least two of the deadly blazes, including the Churchill fire. Those suspicions caused widespread anger around the country and prompted Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to describe the fires as possible mass murder.

Ruth Halyburton, whose home in the town of Marysville was burned to the ground, said yesterday she could not comprehend why anyone would want to light wildfires. "Words can't describe how I feel about them," Halyburton told The Associated Press at a relief center in nearby Alexandra. "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."

Firefighters still struggled to contain about a dozen blazes, one of which flared up yesterday and menaced the town of Healesville, coming within less than 1 kilometer and sending embers dropping over houses.

The catastrophe's scale became clearer yesterday. Officials raised the tally of destroyed homes by 762 to 1,831, and the number of people left homeless or who fled their homes and have not returned was increased by 2,000 to 7,000.


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