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Two quizzed over Australia fires



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Survivor: 'We watched the town burn'

Rescuers are resuming the search for victims of Australia's bushfires amid fears the death toll will rise further.

At least 173 people have died and hundreds more have been injured by blazes sweeping across Victoria state.

Residents in many areas are still on alert as more than a dozen fires continue to burn uncontrolled.

A 100-strong police task force has been launched to investigate the fires. Some are being treated as arson that PM Kevin Rudd described as "mass murder".

Areas affected by bush fires

Task Force Phoenix will work with the state's coroners' office, fire and health authorities to investigate all fire-related deaths.

Detectives have already sealed off a number of sites, including the devastated small town of Marysville, as possible crime scenes.

In Australia, deliberately lighting a fire which results in death carries a sentence of up to 25 years in prison, while intentionally or recklessly causing a bushfire carries a 15-year maximum sentence.

Communities 'wiped out'

Victoria State Premier John Brumby has announced that a royal commission will examine all policies on dealing with fires.

AUSTRALIAN BUSHFIRES
16 February 1983: 75 dead, 2,300 homes destroyed in "Ash Wednesday" bushfires in Victoria and South Australia
8 January 1969: At least 22 dead, 230 homes lost in rural Victoria
7 February 1967: 62 dead, 1,300 homes destroyed in fires in Hobart, Tasmania
13 January 1939: 71 dead, 700 homes destroyed in "Black Friday" fires in Victoria
February - March 1922: 60 die in Gippsland, eastern Victoria

Several communities are on alert, with residents warned to watch out for embers blowing in from bush fires.

Rescue teams are expected to find more victims as they scour isolated communities where residents were trapped - some in their cars.

A record heatwave and changing wind directions on Saturday helped fan the flames, which destroyed more than 750 homes, left 5,000 people homeless and burned 850 square miles (544,000 acres) of land, the Victoria fire service said.

Medical officials said emergency departments across the state had dealt with more than 450 people injured by the bushfires since Saturday.

At the Alfred Hospital in Melbourne, the burns unit was treating 21 people with at least 30% burns on Monday night. Nine of those people were in intensive care.

NICK BRYANT'S AUSTRALIA
Nick Bryant
One man said he hardly had time
to react let alone move, so fast were the advancing walls of flames.


"The classic burn patterns that we are seeing is mostly due to people who have been forced to run through flames or have been exposed to extremely high radiant heat temperatures," Director Dr Heather Clelland said.

Despite cooler conditions than the weekend, officials in Victoria have issued a series of alerts warning of flare-ups.

Shifting winds threatened to send the fires beyond containment lines hacked out by fire crews.

The BBC's Nick Bryant in Victoria says the mood at the state's relief centres is sombre, with many people searching for loved ones among the survivors.

Australian media is reporting survivors' accounts of how they fled walls of fast-advancing flames.

HOW BUSHFIRES SPREAD
Infographic
1 Fires start in hot dry windy weather
2 Embers blown ahead of fire front
3 Spot fires start where embers land

Visiting affected areas on Monday, he said: "We have had whole communities just completely wiped out, completely obliterated, by what people would describe as literally a fireball that just came over the hills and devoured everything before them.

"It's the largest natural disaster in our state's history and Australia's history."

From Kinglake - where at least 35 people died - resident Thomas Legrary described finding a neighbour with up to 50% burns on his body.

They put him in a swimming pool to keep him cool and he was later taken to hospital.

Sonja Parkinson and her young son escaped the inferno in Kinglake by fleeing their home and huddling under a damp blanket in a puddle in a creek.

She said flames roared overhead "like a jet engine" and she was convinced they would die.

INTERACTIVE MAP
Map

"The two front rooms were ablaze. I couldn't see," she told The Australian newspaper. "We went down to the creek and we hid. This little one was so brave under the blanket."

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has announced an aid package of A$10m ($7m, 4.5m).

Asked about suspicions that arsonists were responsible for at least some of the fires, he said: "There are no words to describe it other than mass murder."

Victorian police are expected to reveal details of a task force set up to investigate the cause of the bushfires, Australia's ABC News reported.

The Australian Red Cross, which has about 400 volunteers working in Victoria, has launched an appeal for donations.

Relatives concerned about family members in the affected areas can contact the Australian Red Cross 24-hour helpline on (0061) 393283716 or, from the UK, the British Red Cross international tracing and message service on 0845 053 2004.

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FROM OTHER NEWS SITES
Washington Post Residents Return to Destroyed Homes in Australia - 1 hr ago
CNN New bushfires blamed on arsonists - 2 hrs ago
ABC Online Vic arson taskforce appeals for public help - 3 hrs ago
Time Residents Return to Devastation - TIME - 4 hrs ago
Sky News Bushfire Dead 'Too Burnt To ID' - 4 hrs ago



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