Australian bush fires: Man charged over blaze that killed 21

Australian bush fires: Man charged over blaze that killed 21

13 February 2009

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Australia — The suspect, who cannot be named, was remanded in custody over the Churchill-Jeeralang blaze in Gippsland, which has killed at least 21 people.

He was charged with arson causing death, intentionally lighting a bush fire and possessing child pornography.

His lawyers said he was in a “fragile mental state” and too distressed to attend a court hearing. He did not apply for bail and was remanded until Monday, when he will appear in Melbourne Magistrate Court.

The arrest comes one day after Simon Overland, police deputy commissioner, said police were searching for a “serial arsonist” operating in Gippsland.

Police have also released a photofit of a man they want to speak to in relation to another suspicious fire in Ivanhoe, in Melbourne’s northeastern fringes.

Kevin Rudd, the prime minister, has warned anyone found guilty of deliberately lighting fires in the past week had committed “mass murder”.

Australia has tough sentences for lighting bush fires, with arsonists facing up to 25 years in prison. But arson experts have warned that securing a conviction can be very difficult because any evidence was likely to be incinerated by the fire.

Despite the cooler weather, two fires were threatening homes in Victoria, with residents coming under “ember attack” from the flames.

Country Fire Authority (CFA) strike teams were throwing “everything we’ve got” at the blazes, which were advancing on Toolangi and Healesville. Some Healesville residents have been evacuated while others were preparing to leave.

The death toll from the fires stands at 181, but could rise above 200. It is estimated that more than 1800 homes have been destroyed and 400,000 hectares ravaged by the fires.

The CFA was taking advantage of the milder temperatures and lighter winds to back-burn before the weather warms up again next week.

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