Australian wildfire suspect named

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The Independent Online

A man charged with lighting one of last week's bushfires was identified today as a former volunteer firefighter, Brendan Sokaluk, prompting vigilantes to publish his photograph and address on Facebook, where threats to torture and kill him were posted.

As public anger at the role of arsonists in the deadly fires mounted, a magistrate in Melbourne lifted a court order suppressing the identity of Mr Sokaluk, 39, who is alleged to have started a blaze that killed 11 people in Victoria's Gippsland area and destroyed 200 homes.

Police, who today revised the death toll up to 189 people, urged Australians to let justice take its course. “I know people are angry, and so are all of us in this community,” said the Victoria Police Chief Commissioner, Christine Nixon. “But we need to … go through the investigation and through the court case.”

But by tonight at least three Facebook groups - one of them entitled “Brendan Sokaluk, the Victorian Bushfires Arsonist, must burn in hell”- had been created, attracting thousands of members. In defiance of a court order still in force, photographs of Mr Sokaluk and his address had been posted on the site.

Australian media, meanwhile, reported that Mr Sokaluk had been a member of his local brigade of volunteer firefighters about 20 years ago, before stringent police checks were introduced. He is believed to have left the brigade in the 1990s, and twice attempted to rejoin, without success.

On Mr Sokaluk's own Facebook page, he describes himself as a “young happy male” who wants to meet a woman and get married. He nominates “mother earth” as his hero, since “without her we would all be dead”.

Police said they expected the death toll to rise further as more bodies are retrieved from the wreckage of houses in fire-ravaged towns.