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Policy rethink after wildfires disaster

AUTHORITIES searching for answers to the carnage from the worst wildfires in Australia's history said yesterday they would rethink policies that allow residents to decide for themselves whether to evacuate their homes. An official said he expected the death toll to exceed 200.

Authorities defended their preparation and actions during the fires that swept unchecked across southeastern Australia last weekend, saying the weather conditions were so extreme it was almost impossible to avoid some level of catastrophe. The official death toll currently stands at 181.

But they agreed all current policies would have to be reviewed to prevent a similar disaster from happening again.

Teams moving into towns burned out by the inferno found charred bodies on roadsides and in crashed cars? grim signs of futile attempts to flee raging wildfires fed by 100km/h winds, record heat and drought.

Yesterday, Victoria state Premier John Brumby said the coroner had identified another 50 bodies not counted in the official death toll.

"This is going to be a significant number, it will exceed 200 deaths," Brumby said.

Suspicions that some of the 400 blazes were caused by arson has led police to declare crime scenes in some incinerated towns.

Police assistant Commissioner Dannye Moloney, who was appointed to head the task force investigating the fires, said officials were preparing to release a sketch of a suspect in one of the fires which killed 21 people.

The fires near Melbourne, Australia's second largest city at some 4 million people, destroyed more than 750 homes, left 5,000 people homeless, and burned 2,850 square kilometers of land, the Victoria Country Fire Service said.

Three days after the wildfires, officials said their ferocity, pace and breadth made them impossible to fight effectively.

Still, this disaster would likely rewrite the books on what is considered best practice for handling fires, including the widespread policy of allowing residents in high-risk areas to decide for themselves whether to stay and fight or flee.


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