Bushfire disaster zones sealed off as crime scenes

Australian Prime Minister describes suspected arson as 'mass murder'
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Entire towns in Victoria were sealed off as potential crime scenes yesterday as the death toll from Australia's deadliest bushfires rose to 171, while the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, described the actions of suspected arsonists as "mass murder".

As the toll climbed steadily throughout the day, the state government was warned that it could reach well over 200 as emergency crews penetrate deeper into the disaster zone – a swath of tranquil rural towns and hamlets north-east of Melbourne, transformed into scenes of devastation.

With hard questions being asked about the warning systems that were in place last weekend, the Victorian premier, John Brumby, said a Royal Commission will examine every aspect of the fires. The commission will consider the state's long-standing policy of advising residents threatened by bushfires to stay and defend their homes, or to evacuate early.

Several towns were closed off by police yesterday, so that forensic experts could comb the ruins for evidence of suspected arson, and to allow emergency workers to recover bodies still lying in the streets. The devastated towns included Kinglake, where police found five corpses so badly charred in one house that they could only deduce from the size of their skulls that four were children.

With dozens of people still missing following Australia's worst peacetime disaster since 1899, when a cyclone killed 400 Queenslanders, residents searched desperately for loved ones, scouring lists posted outside emergency relief centres.

Sam Gents, from Kinglake, had not heard from his wife Tina, and three children, aged six, 13 and 15, since flames swept through the town, situated in the mountains of the Great Dividing Range. "The last anyone saw of them, the kids were running in the house, they were blocked in the house," he wept. "If they let me up the mountain, I know where to go [to find them]."

As fires continued to burn yesterday, threatening yet more communities in north-east Victoria, more stories emerged of tragedy and survival. People sought refuge in farm reservoirs, dams, swimming pools, even puddles. Daryl Hogan, of Wandong, leapt into his backyard pool to escape the flames as they roared over his house, leaving it untouched but destroying his neighbour's home.

Sonja Parkinson ran down to a nearby creek with her infant son, Sam. It was just a shallow puddle, but she soaked a blanket in it. Then, as the fire raced over them "like a jet engine", she and Sam – accompanied by their dog, two neighbours and two lyrebirds – huddled in the water, beneath the blanket. "I thought we were going to die," she told The Australian newspaper. "We sat in a muddy puddle, under a wet blanket, and the fire went through us."

Jack Barber recalled how he and his wife fled their house near Kinglake, and spent the night on a sports field, dodging flames that licked at them from different directions as wind gusts blew around. As they drove away on Sunday, he said, "there were dead horses, live horses, kangaroos bouncing down the road with flames at their back".

One firefighter, Drew Adamson, told reporters: "I saw a sheep alight running through a paddock. It was just horrific." One woman sheltered with her children in a wombat's burrow.

A man was badly injured after he tried to escape the fire raging through his home by jumping into a cold bath. In Kinglake, two sisters, Melanie Chambers, 23, and Penelope, 21, perished. Their bodies were found lying alongside the corpses of their favourite pets.

In Bendigo, Michael Ryan was forced to leave his girlfriend's unconscious brother on the ground because he could not carry him in time to escape the fire. His girlfriend, Jill Kane, told the Herald Sun: "He'd got to him and grabbed him, but couldn't get him the last 20 or 30 metres to the road."

In Canberra, federal parliament was suspended yesterday as a mark of respect, after politicians expressed condolences on behalf of the nation. "It is the beauty and wonder of our country," said Warren Truss, leader of the rural-based National Party. "It can also be harsh and cruel. How can these idyllic landscapes also become killing fields?"

Mr Rudd, who was asked about the role of arsonists in a television interview, said: "There are no words to describe it other than mass murder."

Aftermath: The vital questions

*Why have so many people died? Wasn't there enough warning?

The Victorian state premier, John Brumby, warned last Friday that Saturday would be "the worst day in the history of the state", as far as bushfires were concerned. However, on "Black Saturday" the fires advanced so fast that people living in the disaster zone who believed they had hours to escape had, in fact, only minutes.

*Were people given bad advice on whether to evacuate their homes or stay put?

Since the devastating "Ash Wednesday" bushfires of 1983, when 75 people died in Victoria and South Australia, the official advice to residents of fire-prone areas has been to stay and defend their homes, or evacuate well in advance. The worst option is to evacuate late, as became clear last weekend, when many people died after fleeing by car.

*Isn't it dangerous to stay home when a bushfire is approaching?

Not necessarily. If measures have been taken to protect a property – by clearing gutters and flammable material such as trees and shrubs, for instance, and setting up hoses and tubs of water – then it may be safer inside than out, even if the house catches fire. Inside can be a better refuge as the fire wall passes through. Outside, visibility may be low because of smoke, while burning trees often fall over and make roads impassable.

*Is the official advice now being reviewed?

Yes. Mr Brumby says the policy of "stay and defend or leave early" may need to be re-examined in the light of last weekend's high death toll. "There were many people who had done all the preparations, had the best fire plans in the world, and tragically it didn't save them," he said.