WHITTLESEA, Australia – Suspicions that some of Australia's worst wildfires ever were deliberately set led police to declare crime scenes in incinerated towns on Monday, and a clearly emotional prime minister likened the alleged arson to mass murder. The death toll stood at 173.
Department of Environment (DSE) spokesman Kevin Monk said while conditions were nowhere near the extremes of Saturday, he warned people not to become complacent.
"The fires are nowhere near controlled for people to let their guard down," said Monk.
31 fires are still burning and a 33,000 acre blaze is threatening communities including Acheron, Connellys Creek, Crystal Creek, Scrubby Creek, Native Dog Creek and Molesworth. Residents have been told they may be directly impacted by the fire, as wind whips up bushfires across the state.
The scale of the carnage, growing daily, has shocked a nation that endures deadly firestorms every few years. There were no quick answers, but officials said panic and the freight-train speed of the firefront probably accounted for the unusually high toll.
President Obama has sent his prayers and condolences to victims of the wildfire. Immediately after his first prime-time news conference Monday night, he telephoned Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Obama and Rudd talked about the fires raging across Victoria state. Obama offered U.S. assistance to help with the fires.
Earlier Monday, Rudd, visibly upset during a television interview, reflected the country's disgust at the idea that arsonists may have set some of the 400 fires that devastated Victoria state, or helped them jump containment lines.
"What do you say about anyone like that?" Rudd said. "There's no words to describe it, other than it's mass murder."
The public response to the catastrophe has been immediate, with thousands of people donating millions of dollars to the official Red Cross relief fund. Concerned friends and relatives have also used the Herald Sun bushfire message board to post pleas for information on loved ones.
At least 750 homes have been destroyed across the state, and 3,733 people have registered with the Red Cross after evacuating their properties. The number left homeless is expected to be far higher, the Red Cross said.
It was confirmed that at least four children have died, but that figure would also be expected to rise as full details emerged.
A two-year-old girl was among 13 in intensive care in hospital. Twenty-two people with shocking burns were admitted to the Alfred hospital, the state's main trauma centre, wherestaff ran out of morphine trying to ease patients' pain.
Most of the damage was done by two massive fires — one that virtually wiped out towns northeast of Melbourne including Kinglake and Marysville with a 100km front — and a second inferno that raced across Gippsland.
TV veteran Brian Naylor and his wife Moiree were among the dead. The pair died when the fire at Kinglake swept through their property.
Bushfire experts told news.com.au that blazes with a danger rating of 100 are considered uncontrollable. Saturday's fire had a rating of 400.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.