KINGLAKE, Australia (AP) - Residents of towns scorched off the
map by Australia's worst-ever wildfires on Wednesday returned to
their homes for the first time and found scenes of utter
Police said they were looking into reports of suspicious people picking through the ruins of some destroyed houses, as rumors that looting was taking place in abandoned areas swirled.
"Where do you start? Where do you start?" said Peter Denson, standing blank-faced amid the ruins of his home in Kinglake, where
at least 39 people were killed - and the town all but destroyed - in Saturday's inferno.
Denson, a carpenter, has lived in Kinglake since 1977. He said he wants to rebuild, but his house, now a blackened pile of timber, bricks and twisted metal, was not insured because he could not afford it.
"It's like a big atom bomb has gone off," said Denson.
Authorities had sealed off some towns because the grim task of collecting bodies from collapsed buildings was proceeding slowly and because authorities wanted to prevent residents from disturbing crime scenes. Embers were still posing a threat of flare-ups.
Police say they suspect some of the fires were deliberately set, and that at least one suspect is being pursued. Australia's top law officer, Federal Attorney General Robert McLelland, said Wednesday anyone found guilty of lighting a fire that caused multiple deaths would face life in prison if convicted.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd told the Seven Network late Tuesday "they should be allowed to rot in jail."
Victoria's Chief Commissioner of police, Christine Nixon, said there had been reports of suspicious behavior amid the destruction.
"We're having some reports of looting, but not a great deal," Nixon told Sky News television. "There are some reports from some people who are seeing strange people who are sifting through parts of houses that have been burnt."
It was not clear if those people owned the houses, or were searching for food, clothes or other necessities.
Residents were allowed to return to Kinglake, about 70 miles (130 kilometers) north of the Victoria state capital of Melbourne, but their progress was slow because emergency workers were still removing burned debris and cutting down trees that appeared ready to fall. Power lines - the electricity supply long cut - were strewn across some streets.
Some houses bore makeshift signs with messages from survivors to
loved ones who might come looking for them.
"All out ... we shall return," said one sign.
While there is free access to many areas in the fire zone, tensions have been rising in recent days as demands rose for police to let residents back to the worst-hit places to check on their homes and check on pets and other animals left behind. Police urged people to be patient.
Victoria Premier John Brumby said some survivors had not even seen television footage of the disaster's scale and he was worried about the emotional impact on people seeing the destruction for the first time.
More than 400 fires ripped through Victoria on Saturday, fed by 60 mph (100 kph) winds, record heat and a severe drought. The official death toll stood at 181 on Wednesday, but bodies were still being collected and Brumby said it would "exceed 200 deaths."
The Country Fire Authority said Wednesday the official tally of houses destroyed had risen to more than 1,000, from 750 earlier. Some 5,000 people are homeless, and 1,100 square miles (2,850 square kilometers) of land has been scorched.
Thousands of mostly volunteer firefighters were still battling more than a dozen fires across the state on Wednesday. Weather conditions were cool, but gusting winds constantly threatened efforts to get them under control. Forecasters said temperatures could rise again by the weekend.
Donations have poured in. The Red Cross said its government-backed wildfire fund had received more than 33 million Australian dollars ($22 million). Police and nongovernment organizations were collecting clothes, toys and homewares.
Some of the survivors were living in tents erected by emergency services on sports fields. Others stayed with friends or at relief centers.
The high death toll has forced authorities to re-examine an accepted survival strategy when blazes threaten: Get out early or hunker down and fight. Many people waited too long and died as they tried to escape.
But Brumby said the policy would remain in place until a full investigation had been carried out.