80 Missing, Presumed Dead in Australia Wildfires as Officials Chase Arsonists

Firefighters in Victoria, Australia, have used cool, relatively calm conditions to try to bolster control lines around wildfires ahead of predicted warm, windy hot weather later in the week.

Dozens of towns were on alert for ember attack Tuesday night as the death toll from Australia's worst-ever wildfires climbed to 181.

More than 4,000 firefighters still have their hands full with 23 fires out of control and 10 others contained but still burning strongly within control lines.

Threats have eased to towns near the Beechworth fire in the state's northeast, around Healesville on Melbourne's outer eastern fringe, and from the Bunyip Ridge and Churchill-Jeeralang fires in Gippsland.

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With up to 80 people still missing, Victorian Premier John Brumby said the official toll for the Victoria fires would rise to over 200. "There's still a large number of people ... and essentially these are people who the coroner believes are already deceased, but are not yet identified,'' Brumby said.

Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine director Professor Stephen Cordner said identification would be impossible to achieve in some cases.

With most of the affected townships still being treated as crime scenes, many remain off-limits to residents.

Assistant Commissioner Dannye Moloney said he was close to releasing a sketch of a suspected arsonist operating in the Churchill area in Gippsland just days before last Saturday's inferno.

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A 100-strong team of detectives has been formed to look at every fire site to determine if they were deliberately lit. Taskforce Phoenix will investigate all fire-related deaths and prepare briefs for the coroner.

Fires to be investigated will include Churchill, Marysville, Wandong and Beechworth.

The Premier also appointed outgoing Victoria Police chief Christine Nixon to head a new body to direct bushfire recovery across the state.

Brumby said Nixon was the "ideal person" to lead the rebuilding program.

"My mission is to rebuild these communities and Christine Nixon is the best person I think to assist me in that task," the Premier said.

Nixon will remain police chief until March 2, when she takes control of the Victorian Bushfire Reconstruction and Recovery Authority.

In Canberra, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd pledged an extra $5 million to help fire victims as public donations topped $30 million, not including corporate and government donations.

Queen Elizabeth II will make a private donation to the fundraising appeal, but Buckingham Palace declined to specify the size of the donation.

Rudd pledged to rebuild razed Victorian towns "brick by brick" with no limit on funding.

He said the Commonwealth would speed up help for victims who had lost everything and towns would be rebuilt "brick by brick, school by school, community hall by community hall and the nation must attend with "grave urgency" to the problem of arson.

He rejected Liberal fears he would use the disaster to get his $42 billion economic stimulus package through Parliament.

Rudd told Parliament that money for schools and public housing would go first to Victoria and to flood-hit Queensland.

In Victoria, a temporary morgue had been set up at the State Coronial Services Centre, but forensic experts Tuesday warned that some victims had been too badly burned to be positively identified.

Meanwhile, the Country Fire Authority was forced to defend itself after residents of Kinglake criticized emergency services for not giving them enough time to escape the inferno.

Tammy Reece, from Kinglake West, said she was away from her home when the fire broke out, but her partner and six children at the house were unaware of the threat.

"My partner never got any warning at all," Reece said. "No one came past and said, 'Get out.' They should have got around and should have done more, that is the whole thing."

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