13 Feb 2009

Arson charge laid over Victoria bushfire

9:20 pm on 13 February 2009

Police in Australia have charged a man with starting one of the deadly bushfires in Victoria.

The fires have burnt 1,831 homes, 450,000 hectares of land and left 7,000 people homeless. The official death toll stands at 181, but that figure is expected to rise.

The disaster area, more than twice the size of London and encompassing more than 20 towns, has been declared a crime zone.

On Friday, a man was charged with lighting a fire near the town of Churchill in Gippsland, where least 21 people are believed to have been killed.

The accused did not appear in person at the court hearing on Friday. The court was told the man is in a fragile mental state and he was remanded in custody until Monday.

He has been formally charged with arson causing death, intentionally lighting a bushfire and possessing child pornography. All details surrounding his identity have been suppressed.

Assistant Police Commissioner Danny Maloney says the man has been moved to Melbourne because of security concerns.

The bushfires began last Saturday and continue to rage throughout Victoria, including the 36,000-hectare Churchill fire.

Though most of the fires were not deliberately lit, arson in some areas is suspected, including Gippsland, Marysville and Kinglake.

In Marysville, the death toll is expected to reach 100, one fifth of the town's population.

Victoria police announced this week a taskforce made up of 150 police would investigate all fire-related deaths from the bushfires.

In Victoria, arson carries a jail term of two to 15 years, and 25 years if there is loss of life.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has described the bushfires as "mass murder".