- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 10, 2009

WHITTLESEA, Australia | Police declared incinerated towns crime scenes Monday, and the prime minister spoke of “mass murder” after investigators said arsonists may have set some of Australia’s worst wildfires in history. The death toll rose Tuesday to 173.

There were no quick answers, but officials said panic and the freight-train speed of the fire front - driven by 60 mph winds and temperatures as high as 117 degrees Fahrenheit - 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 those fires jump containment lines.

“What do you say about anyone like that?” Mr. Rudd said. “There’s no words to describe it, other than it’s mass murder.”

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.

At Kinglake, a body covered by a white sheet lay in a yard where every tree, blade of grass and the ground was blackened.

Elsewhere in the town, the burned-out hulks of four cars were clustered haphazardly together after an apparent collision. Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio reported a car in a small reservoir, the driver apparently steering there in desperation.

“What we’ve seen, I think, is that people didn’t have enough time, in some cases,” Victoria Police Commissioner Christine Nixon told reporters. “We’re finding [bodies] on the side of roads, in cars that crashed.”

But there were also extraordinary tales of survival.

One man leaped 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.

The Victoria Country Fire Service said some 850 square miles were burned out.

Ms. 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.

Blazes have been burning for weeks across several states in southern Australia. A long-running drought in the south - the worst in a century - had left forests very dry, and Saturday’s fire conditions in Victoria were said to be the worst ever in Australia.

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