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Asia-pacific

National day of mourning as fires rage on

©

Video by Nicolas GERMAIN

Latest update : 2009-02-22

Australian PM Kevin Rudd led national tributes Sunday to the victims of the ongoing wildfire disaster, which has destroyed 1,800 homes and claimed the lives of at least 181 people. This is the country's worst-ever wildfire tragedy.

AFP - Firefighters in ash-covered overalls joined sombre memorial services held across Australia Sunday, a week after walls of flame incinerated rural towns, killing at least 181 people.
   
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd led national tributes to the victims of the country's worst wildfire disaster, which destroyed 1,800 homes, as firefighters warned the firestorms would burn out of control for weeks to come.
   
With the death toll set to keep rising, police hunted for arsonists suspected behind some blazes while survivors launched a lawsuit against a power company blamed for another.
   
Australians paused to remember the tragedy that overtook them with ferocious speed and power on February 7, with Rudd leading an open-air service in the disaster-zone town of Wandong in southeastern Victoria state.
   
The prime minister paid special tribute to volunteer firefighters, who stood on their trucks in orange overalls smeared with ashes from the bushfires, eight of which are still raging out of control.
   
"You put yourselves last and your community first," he said before placing eucalyptus leaves in a bowl of water as a symbol of remembrance and renewal.
   
"We intend to be with you every step of the way," he said, pledging his government would help rebuild towns razed in the fires that have scorched 400,000 hectares (988,000 acres) and left thousands homeless.
   
Governor-General Quentin Bryce attended a church service in the hamlet of Whittlesea attended by survivors from nearby Kinglake, just 50 kilometres (30 miles) from Melbourne, which was almost burned to the ground.
   
Officials warned the crisis was far from over, with 4,300 firefighters struggling to put out blazes despite a drop in temperatures and the high winds that fanned the flames a week ago.
   
"We are potentially talking weeks before we have things completely under control and we are only part-way through our fire season," said Victoria Department of Sustainability and Development spokesman Lee Miezis.
   
Two firefighters were injured overnight when a tree fell on them as they fought flames near the town of Alexandra, Miezis said.
   
Indonesian forensic specialists who gained experience identifying bodies during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami arrived to help local authorities with their grisly task.
   
But five days after the last death toll update was released, police appealed to Australians for patience in waiting to learn the full human cost of the disaster.
   
"I understand people's frustrations about that," said Victoria's chief commissioner of police, Christine Nixon.
   
"We're (now) working with the coroner in very difficult circumstances where people bodies have been found. We need to be able to identify and work on that problem. The processing was fairly quick to start with but now it's slowed down."
   
Around 300 residents of the town of Marysville, where one in five of the 500 residents are believed to have perished, made a brief but harrowing return home Saturday in a convoy of buses.
   
"To go back was so difficult, but it's also really important. It makes you accept it happened -- it's like burying the dead," said sobbing resident Patricia Beggs after the grim visit.
   
"(Marysville) just has to live in our memories ... it's very hard to accept that," she said of the town, which has been reduced to piles of ashes, molten metal and bricks.
   
The Age newspaper reported survivors were launching a class action against a Singapore-owned electricity firm alleging a downed power line sparked one of the killer firestorms near Kinglake.
   
Residents of the town would sue SP Ausnet and the Victoria state government, alleging the power line set off a fire that killed at least 100 people and destroyed 1,000 homes, the newspaper reported.
   
SP Ausnet, part of the Singapore Power Group, refused to comment directly on the lawsuit.
   
As investigations continued, Nixon warned angry residents not to take justice into their own hands.
   
A 39-year-old man was due to appear in court Monday in Melbourne charged with causing death by arson in relation to one fire which killed more than 20 people.
   
"I know people are angry, and so are all of us in this community," Nixon said.
   
"But we need to kind of have a sense that the proper processes are in place and we need to go through the investigation and through the court case."

Date created : 2009-02-15

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