First arson suspect charged over Australian bushfires

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Australian police made their first arrest yesterday following the bushfires that devastated Victoria last weekend, charging a local man over a fire that killed 21 people.

The man's name was suppressed for his own safety, and he was moved from rural Victoria to Melbourne, the state capital. Public anger is running high after police revealed that some of the blazes, which killed at least 181 people, were caused by arsonists.

The fire allegedly lit by the 39-year-old man near Churchill, east of Melbourne, is still burning out of control, but is no longer threatening communities. Another blaze menaced the town of Healesville yesterday, advancing to within a mile of houses and showering them with embers.

The suspect, who was charged with arson causing death and intentionally lighting a fire, was ordered to undergo psychiatric evaluation. Police told Morwell magistrates' court that he was in a fragile mental state. He was also charged with possessing child pornography. Although he did not appear in court, locals hurled abuse at a van leaving the building yesterday.

The Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, has described the bushfires as "mass murder", and said that anyone proved to be responsible should "rot in jail".

Gavin Wigginton, who lost his home in the Churchill fire, said yesterday: "If this person is not insane, then I think he should be in jail for a very long time. If he's culpable, if he's all there, he must have known that this was going to kill people, and that clearly is murder." More than 1,800 homes were destroyed by the fire, which also left 7,000 people homeless, and razed 1,500 sq m of forest and farmland.

Police believe that a second blaze, which wiped out the town of Marysville, was also deliberately lit. Up to 100 people – one in five of the population – are feared to have died there, although the official death toll stands at 15. Marysville has been sealed off all week.

The arson suspect faces a maximum sentence of 25 years if found guilty of the first charge, and 15 years if convicted of the second. However, experts say arson is very hard to prove, with physical evidence usually burnt or removed. Murder by arson is even trickier, since wildfires often join together, making it difficult to link a specific fire set by an arsonist with one that subsequently kills people.

A special police taskforce of 25 officers has been set up to carry out Australia's biggest ever arson investigation.