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Australian bush fires: Man charged over blaze that killed 21

Posted by tothewire on February 16, 2009

Australian police have arrested and charged a man suspected of lighting one of the deadly bush fires that devastated the state of Victoria, in the first breakthrough in the hunt for arsonists responsible for Australia’s worst ever bush fire disaster.

Australia has tough sentences for lighting bush fires, with arsonists facing up to 25 years in prison

Australian bush fires: Australia has tough sentences for lighting bush fires, with arsonists facing up to 25 years in prison

The 39-year-old man, who cannot be named, was remanded in custody over the Churchill-Jeeralang blaze in Gippsland, which has killed at least 21 people. The blaze swept through 36,000 hectares of the La Trobe Valley and last night remained out of control, although it was not threatening any homes.

The man was charged with arson causing death, intentionally lighting a bush fire and possession of child pornography. If convicted, he will face a maximum of 25 years in prison for arson. However, arson experts have warned that securing a conviction can be very difficult because any evidence was likely to be incinerated by the fire.

Both fire charges relate to a blaze that started on Feb 7 in a plantation near the town of Churchill, east of Melbourne, and quickly spread to nearby communities.

He is the first person to be charged over the bush fires which have killed at least 181 people and plunged the country into a state of shock and mourning.

The breakthrough in Victoria Police’s massive arson investigation came yesterday morning, when the man was arrested in Churchill by officers from task force Phoenix, which was set up to investigated the ferocious “Black Saturday” bush fires.

Police said the man was arrested in a public place and “went without a fight”. He did not appear at a court hearing, after his legal aid lawyer said he was in a “fragile mental state”. He also requested that his client’s identity be suppressed and that he was moved to an undisclosed location in Melbourne over fears for his safety.

No application for bail has been made. The man will appear at Melbourne Magistrate’s Court on Feb 16.

The arrest comes one day after Simon Overland, police deputy commissioner, said police were searching for a “serial arsonist” operating in Gippsland. Officers also confirmed that the fire that swept through the town of Marysville, and is feared to have killed one in five of its residents, was being treated as suspicious.

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

The death toll from the fires stands at 181, but authorities fear it could rise above 300. It is estimated that more than 1,800 homes have been destroyed and 400,000 hectares ravaged by the infernos. Entire towns have been deemed crime scenes as forensic teams search the dust and ash for clues of how the fires could have started.

The Country Fire Authoritiy was taking advantage of the milder temperatures and lighter winds to back-burn before the weather warms up again next week. However, one fire came within half a mile of the town of Healesville yesterday, before it was brought under control. At least 15 blazes are still burning in the state, sending huge clouds of smoke and the strong smell of burning as far south as Melbourne city.

By Bonnie Malkin in Melbourne
http://www.telegraph.co.uk

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