Aussie Fire Death Toll Reaches 200

MELBOURNE, Australia – The confirmed death toll from Australia's deadly wildfires reached the grim milestone of 200 Tuesday, and a police official said some bodies reduced to ash in the inferno would never be identified.

Investigators confirmed 11 additional people had died in one of more than 400 fires that raged across southern Victoria state on Feb. 7, destroying more than 1,800 homes and scorching more than 1,500 square miles (3,900 square kilometers) of farms, forests and towns.

In a statement, Victoria police said the newest confirmed deaths occurred in a fire that razed the town of Kinglake and surrounding areas. Police spokesman Marty Beveridge said the death count would go higher as more remains are identified.

The sobering news came as a firefighter was killed Tuesday evening during a recovery effort in the devastated village of Marysville, police said. A police spokesman said no details on the firefighter's cause of death were immediately available.

Meanwhile, a senior police commander said some of the victims of the deadly blazes will likely never be identified because the fires were so intense their bodies were cremated.

Ten days after the disaster, police say they have not been able to give a definitive death toll because of the difficulty in finding and identifying remains.

In some cases, all that is left of the victims is ash, police Deputy Commissioner Kieran Walshe told The Associated Press.

"Fire does terrible damage to bodies and the identification process is going to be a lengthy process and it's going to require scientific examination," Walshe said. "In some cases it will be within a few weeks ... in other cases it may well be we're unable to be definitive about the identity."

Where there is only ash, victim identification crews rely on other clues like jewelry found in the ruins to help attach names to the remains, Walshe said.

He declined to say how many bodies may still be in the disaster zone. He said police believed they had cleared all bodies from burned open areas, and were now sifting through ruined homes.

Police suspect at least two of the fires were deliberately set, and have charged one man with arson causing death and lighting a wildfire. Brendan Sokaluk, 39, faces a maximum sentence of 25 years on the first charge and 15 years on the second. He is being held in protective custody to prevent revenge attacks against him.

On Monday, thousands of people on the social networking site Facebook joined vigilante groups that called for Sokaluk's death. By Tuesday, they had been taken down, though new ones popped up in their place.

Sokaluk's MySpace profile, in which he painted himself as a lonely, love-starved bachelor, was also deleted Tuesday. On his profile, he wrote in disparaging terms of a woman named "Alexandra."

On Tuesday, Alexandra's mother released a statement to the media through the Victoria police saying her family has been harassed since the link between Alexandra and Sokaluk became public. The woman, who police refused to identify, said her daughter had a three-month relationship with Sokaluk that ended a year ago.

Alexandra, shown on her MySpace profile wearing a Country Fire Authority uniform, is not a member of the organization but has helped raise money for it, her mother said.

The police declined to reveal Alexandra's last name or any other details.

MySpace's Australian director of Safety, David Batch, said the Web site was working with police and had suspended Sokaluk's profile pending the outcome of the investigation.

Meanwhile, a class-action lawsuit was filed against electricity supplier SP AusNet alleging that defective power lines caused losses and damage in connection with one of the fires.

SP AusNet, which is 51 percent-owned by Singapore Power Group, which runs a 6.3 billion Australian dollar ($4 billion) gas and power network in southeast Australia that is one of the country's largest, vowed to fight the claim.

A government inquiry into the fire should be concluded first, the company contends.

"SP AusNet believes the claim is both premature and inappropriate," the company said Tuesday in a statement to the Australian Securities Exchange. "However, SP AusNet will vigorously defend the claim."

The inquiry, intended to investigate the fire, its causes, the preparedness of residents and emergency services responses, will deliver an initial report on Aug. 17.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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