Australia — Police will today form a special taskforce to hunt suspected arsonists believed responsible for many of the fires that have cost more than 100 lives in Victoria, with fears the toll will double.
Detectives from the arson squad and other specialist areas were briefed this morning on their roles in the new taskforce.
Senior police have also been told the death toll could rise to 200 when searches of remote areas are completed.
Police said that because of the possibility of arson each case has to be treated as a possible homicide.
After he was briefed at the fire scene yesterday a grim Prime Minister Kevin Rudd warned Australians to brace for more bad news when the true picture of the devastation is revealed.
Police Disaster Victim Identification teams are moving in to begin the process of formally identifying the bodies.
DVI units from around Australia are flying into Melbourne as a national disaster plan, designed to respond to a terrorist attack, is invoked.
Police say the intense heat means some victims have been effectively cremated and can only be identified through jewellery or circumstantial evidence.
The teams have a formal checklist to complete to try and prove the identity of those who have died.
The unprecedented number of victims means identification will take several days.
Priority will be given to victims found in cars on roads, so those areas can be reopened. Then the teams will move to damaged and destroyed farms and houses.
Police Chief Commissioner Christine Nixon urged the public to be patient.
“This will take some time. We will do this as fast as we can so that people can return to their properties, but it is a complex matter and we must be accurate,” she said.
Ms Nixon said that because of the possibility of arson each fatality had to be treated as a possible homicide case and each site as a crime scene.
Homicide squad police would also be used in the exhaustive police investigation.
Deputy Commissioner Kieran Walshe said an offender implicated in the fatal fires could be charged with the homicide-related offence of arson causing death – a crime with a maximum penalty of 25 years’ jail.
But anyone who lit a fire that resulted in several deaths would be charged multiple counts.
An arsonist responsible for a fatal fire in Saturday’s conditions could be charged with the alternative offence of reckless murder that carries a possible life sentence.
Mr Walshe said that anyone who was found to have caused the fires through stupidity would also be charged with recklessly causing a bushfire that has a maximum jail term of 15 years.
Advisors to the police’s forensic services department said it would be a long time before many of the bodies can be identified.
Investigators must comb vast areas of remote, burnt-out bushland in the hope of finding remains.
When asked how long it would take, advisor Greg Hough said: “Imagine drawing a line across a third of Victoria and and try and estimate how long it would take you to find gold rings in that area.
“Potentially the only indicators could be jewellery and teeth, it depends on how bad it is.”
Mr Hough, who worked on body identification during the Bali bombings and Boxing Day tsunami, said investigators faced dangers from the fragile nature of the structures they had to comb through as well as fallen and burnt out trees.
“It will all be very time-consuming,” he said.
“Wherever there is report of a deceased person, forensic investigators will go and the scene has to be photographed and recorded and the human remains recovered. That can take considerable time.”
Police have been receiving and co-ordinating assistance from interstate services.