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Arson Suspected in Deadly Australian Wildfires

February 9, 2009 at 6:30 PM EDT
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The death toll has reached 166 in Australia's worst wildfires in its history, and police suspect arsons might have caused some of the fires in the southeastern part of the country. A reporter provides an update from Sydney.

JIM LEHRER: Earlier this evening, Jeffrey Brown talked with Jennifer Bennett of the Los Angeles Times from Sydney.

JEFFREY BROWN: Jennifer, what can you tell us about the situation today in terms of weather conditions and control of the fires?

JENNIFER BENNETT, Los Angeles Times: Well, this morning, the weather is a little cooler. And some of the fires have slowed a little, but there’s still about 50 raging throughout the state, about 12 of which are out of control still. Overnight, the death toll continued to climb. I think it could hit 200 by the end of the day.

JEFFREY BROWN: The incredible speed and ferocity of these fires, this is a region, a country, in fact, that’s quite used to bushfires, I understand. But what is being said about what made these so powerful?

JENNIFER BENNETT: Well, yes, as you said, bushfires are a fact of life in Australia, but these ones are unlike anything that we’ve ever seen. Essentially, it’s believed that a combination of serious drought in this part of Australia — New South Wales and Victoria and South Australia have been in drought for about 12 years — combined with a heat wave in Victoria last week. Saturday was the hottest day in Melbourne’s history.

And then a usual common weather system then pushes more hot air and wind down from the center of Australia through Victoria. Again, this is something that’s very normal, but, combined with this existing heat wave, just turned into an inferno.

Residents caught off-guard

JEFFREY BROWN: And what we keep hearing over and over again -- and we saw in that ITN piece -- is this notion of how quickly people were hit by this. They just had no sense of the immediate danger, and then suddenly it was on them.

JENNIFER BENNETT: Yes, they've been moving incredibly fast. A common thing in Australia is the stay-and-fight policy. The government and the rural fire services urge you to leave as early as possible, but, if you are going to stay, decide that you're going to stay and prepare your house.

Many of the people in this area would have been through dozens of other bushfires in the past. This is the area where the Ash Wednesday fires in the early '80s went through. These were people completely used to bushfires. They knew what they were doing.

But they simply had no idea how quickly they were moving. There was one fire that was reported to have gone through about two miles of land in the space of five minutes. People just had no idea they were coming.

Authorities following arson leads

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, there are some suggestions and reports that some of these fires might have been set by arsonists. And Prime Minister Kevin Rudd called it, quote, "mass murder." How much is known about that aspect of this so far?

JENNIFER BENNETT: Well, several fires have already been declared crime scenes. The town of Marysville -- which, if you see footage of it from the air, it just looks like it's been bombed flat -- has been declared a crime scene. And that's the same for several other fire grounds in the state.

The police are currently following up, I believe, three or four leads they have on arsonists that they're planning on arresting for this. Victoria already has some of the harshest penalties for arson in the state -- I'm sorry, in the country. A few years ago, they raised the punishment from three years in prison to 15 years. And I believe they're considering raising it to 25. So that puts it on a par with a murder charge.

But they definitely know that several of these fires were started by arsonists and, in some cases, arsonists were going around relighting fires that had been put out.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, it also was reported today the Victoria's state premier, John Brumby, he said that he would form a commission to look at various questions out of all this, I guess including something you just referred to earlier, the policy in place up to now about when people should evacuate or whether they should stay in some cases and fight.

Tell us a little bit about the national debate that has come out of all this and what kind of questions will be looked at.

Reviewing procedures

JENNIFER BENNETT: Well, as you said, yesterday Premier Brumby has announced that he's going to establish a royal commission. There has been -- which will look at everything, he said.

He said everything will be on the table, from sort of volunteer equipment to how the country fire authority in Victoria were able to respond, to telecommunications in the area. So it's going to look at everything. But one of the things that will come up is the stay-and-fight program.

Chief firefighters from around the country have weighed in and said that they still believe that it's the best system. The head of the Rural Fire Service, which is the fire service in New South Wales, came out this morning and said that he still believes that stay-and-fight was the best thing, as has the head of the Western Australia fire service.

Again, the problem with the Victorian one does seem to have been that these people left at too late to leave, but why did they leave at too late to leave? Is this anything that could have been solved? There are a few people that have said that, if they'd first left when they realized there was a fire, they would have been killed as the fire came through the road.

There is some discussion about stay-and-fight, but it's still very, very early days. And so far, fire departments from around the country still maintain that they think it's the safest way of doing it. And the premier himself has said that, in the past, stay-and-fight has served Victoria well. It's just this time something went horribly wrong.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Well, Jennifer Bennett of the Los Angeles Times in Australia for us, thank you very much.

JENNIFER BENNETT: Thank you very much.