Page last updated at 10:00 GMT, Monday, 30 March 2009 11:00 UK

Death toll cut in Australia fires

Ruins of a fire-hit home in Mudgeegonga, Victoria, Australia, 10 February 2009
Forensic investigators have been sifting through the ash-ridden remains

Police in the Australian state of Victoria now say that fewer people than originally believed died in the fires that ravaged the area in February.

Police now estimate 173 people died, compared to a previous figure of 210.

Some of the people thought to be missing have now been accounted for, while tests on remains have shown some to be from animals not humans.

Last month, thousands of firefighters fought bush fires across the state, and many homes were destroyed.

"We have been able to account for a number of people who were initially presumed missing as a result of the fires, and this has impacted on the final figure," deputy police commissioner Kieran Walshe told the Australian media.

"We continuously stated that this would be a complicated and lengthy matter, and it would take considerable time before we were in a position to accurately determine the number of people who lost their lives as a result of this tragic event," Mr Walshe said.

Forensic findings

Mr Walshe said the 210 figure had always been a provisional number due to the complicated nature of the post-mortem examinations.

"When the searches were conducted in the field our DVI teams recovered what they believed to be around 210 sets of remains," he said.

"Over the past six weeks we have gone through tens of thousands of records and documentation, working closely with the Red Cross and the Coroner's Office to ensure that the figure we have is as accurate as it possibly can be at this time. "In some instances, some remains have been examined and found to belong to one person, when originally suspected to be two or more.


Aerial footage of devastated Australian communities

"We have also had to eliminate animal remains as part of the identification process and this too has impacted on the figure," Mr Walshe explained.

Police now believe the figure of 173 was "closer to the final number of people who perished during the fires", he said.

According to the revised figures, the highest death toll occurred at Kinglake, where 38 lives were lost.

A further 34 died in Marysville and 27 died in Strathewen.

The Victorian coroner has so far positively identified 87 victims, The Australian newspaper reported.

Bushfires burned in Victoria for more than a month, sparked by high temperatures and a prolonged drought.

Police are investigating whether some of the blazes were man-made; one man has already been arrested.

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