HEALESVILLE, Australia — Authorities searching for answers to the carnage from the worst wildfires in Australia’s history said Tuesday they would rethink policies that allow residents to decide for themselves whether to evacuate their homes. An official said he expected the death toll to exceed 200.
Authorities defended their preparation and actions during the fires that swept unchecked across southeastern Australia last weekend, saying the weather conditions were so extreme that it was almost impossible to avoid some level of catastrophe. The official death toll currently stands at 181.
But they agreed all current policies would have to be reviewed to prevent a similar disaster from happening again.
Teams moving into towns burned out by the inferno found charred bodies on roadsides and in crashed cars – grim signs of futile attempts to flee raging wildfires fed by 60 mph (100 kph) winds, record heat and drought.
On Tuesday evening, Victoria state Premier John Brumby said the coroner had identified another 50 bodies that had not been counted in the official death toll.
“This is going to be a significant number, it will exceed 200 deaths,” Brumby said.
Suspicions that some of the 400 blazes were caused by arson has led police to declare crime scenes in some incinerated towns. Police assistant Commissioner Dannye Moloney, who was appointed Tuesday to head the task force investigating the fires, said officials were preparing to release a sketch of a suspect in one of the fires, which killed 21 people.
The fires near Melbourne, Australia’s second largest city at some 4 million people, destroyed more than 750 homes, left 5,000 people homeless, and burned 1,100 square miles (2,850 square kilometers) of land, the Victoria Country Fire Service said.
Three days after the wildfires, officials said their ferocity, pace and breadth made them impossible to fight effectively.
Still, this disaster would likely rewrite the books on what is considered best practice for handling fires, including the widespread policy of allowing residents in high-risk areas to decide for themselves whether to stay and fight or flee.
The policy recognizes that Australia’s wildfire services – made up largely of volunteers – lack the resources to protect every house; thus, homeowners are allowed to try to protect their own property.
“It is the application of that policy and a lack of an alternative that we need to work on,” Country Fire Authority chief Russel Rees told reporters Tuesday. But he conceded that evacuation orders were unlikely to be heeded by all, and would be hard to enforce during a fire emergency.
Victorian state Police and Emergency Services Minister Bob Cameron said his government would not consider making fire evacuations mandatory as it awaits the recommendations of a commission investigating the disaster.
“We know that when you have compulsory evacuation, you end up with lots and lots of collisions on the road,” he told Australian Broadcasting Corp. television.
In Victoria, there is no formal alert system of text messages or phone calls to warn residents of approaching wildfires, though the state’s Country Fire Authority regularly posts updates to its Web site on individual blazes along with advice for residents. The service’s updates are also broadcast over the radio.
In the worst conditions, like Saturday’s, the direction and intensity of fires can change so quickly that sirens, e-mail and other possible warning systems are not effective, officials say.
Brumby said a national emergency warning system for wildfires should be considered, and that he wrote to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd about the idea months ago.
Survivors were divided on the issue.
Brooke Coleman, 29, said her family followed their prepared fire plan – she left with her 18-month-old daughter and husband Zack stayed to try to protect their house, one of few that survived in Kinglake.
“We wouldn’t have a house if my husband hadn’t stayed up there,” said Coleman, whose husband lived in the town – and with wildfire threats – all his life.
Tim Hubbard left his house in Healesville with his wife and five children when he heard the fire was closing in.
“I think there should be a line drawn on this ‘make up your own mind whether you stay and fight,'” he said. “I’d be absolutely fine with being told to evacuate. Sometimes you can’t stop where the fire is going to go, it doesn’t matter how much fighting you do.”
The scale of the disaster shocked a nation that endures deadly firestorms every few years. Officials said panic and the freight-train speed of the flames probably accounted for the unusually high death toll.
Some experts suggested the large number of deaths could also be partly due to a change in the makeup of the population in the areas blackened by the blazes.
There are more people living on the outskirts of cities like Melbourne who have no experience with wildfires, relying on the resources of the Country Fire Authority for help with the blazes, said Mark Adams of the Bushfire Cooperative Research Center. It used to be that families that lived in such areas were usually prepared with equipment to fight the fires themselves, Adams told ABC Television.
Rudd addressed the tragedy in Parliament, which suspended normal debate for a second day to hear condolence speeches.
The possibility of arson, “leaves us speechless,” he said. “There is no excuse for this, none at all. This … is simply murder on a grand scale.”
President Barack Obama telephoned Rudd on Monday night to convey his condolences to the victims. Obama offered U.S. assistance to help with the fires. Dozens of other world leaders also sent condolences.
Kevin Olson, chief of California’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said southeastern Australia faces some of the same fire problems because of similar climates and topography as California, which is occasionally hit with devastating wildfires.
“Driving through Victoria, it’s just like driving through coastal California. … With the same heat, the same winds and dry fuels, California always has the potential to burn like that,” said Olson, who has traveled to Victoria and hosts Australian firefighters when they visit the U.S.
Andrew Sullivan, senior researcher with Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization concurred, saying both the U.S. state and Australia combine the same dangerous conditions: “fire weather, fuel and people.”
Firefighters on Tuesday were still battling more than a dozen blazes that burned out of control across Victoria state, although conditions were much cooler than Saturday. Forecasters said temperatures would rise later this week, posing a risk of flare-ups.
Of Australia’s estimated 60,000 fires in forests and other vegetation each year, about half are deliberately lit or are suspicious, the government-funded Institute of Criminology said earlier this month.