WHITTLESEA, Australia – The leader of the Australian state devastated by wildfires says the death toll will exceed 200.
The confirmed death toll stood at 181 Tuesday evening, but Victoria state Premier John Brumby said the coroner has identified another 50 bodies that have not been counted in the official death toll.
Authorities fear many bodies may have been burned beyond recognition and others will never be retrieved from the ashes spread over 360,000 acres of devastation across Victoria.
"There's still a large number of people — in excess of 50 who are unconfirmed 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 in some cases impossible to achieve.
Police are continuing to hunt down the arsonist believed to be responsible for lighting one of the worst of the Victoria fires.
Police have confirmed that they believe they know the identity of the man who allegedly contributed to the Churchill-Jeeralang blaze in Gippsland. Twenty-one people have died in the region.
But the Country Fire Authority said the firefront could have included towns further north, including Kinglake, St Andrews and Strathewen, where dozens more died in the firestorm.
Police said they could release a photo of the suspect in the next couple of days. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has likened lighting the blazes to mass murder, and tonight said arsonists should "rot in jail".
24 fires were still burning and towns remained under threat as authorities moved deeper into the ruins of more than 700 homes which were lost.