Australia Mourns Worst Bushfire in History; Toll Stands at 209

Australia mourned its worst-ever bushfires, which killed at least 209 people and were still burning today in four areas north and east of Melbourne., dpa reported

Thousands of people, including Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, Victorian Premier John Brumby and Britain's Princess Ann gathered at Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne for the 11 a.m. service, which began with ringing church bells and was to include addresses by political leaders and religious figures.

All Australians "have stood still and watched and cried as they have seen what's happened to these poor communities," Rudd told 3AW radio this morning. "The big test for us all, including me, is where we are a year from now."

Authorities had warned that as many as 300 people may have been killed in the fires that swept through Victoria state earlier this month, razing more than 1,800 houses and leaving 7,000 homeless. The toll stands at 209 people, and four uncontained "going fires" continue to burn north and east of Melbourne, police said.

Two weeks of record temperatures and hot northerly gales across the southeast of the continent made conditions two weeks ago worse than in February 1983, when 75 people in Victoria and neighboring South Australia died in what are known as the Ash Wednesday fires.

The toll exceeds the 71 killed when Cyclone Tracy hit the northern city of Darwin in 1974 and the 71 who died in Victoria's Black Friday fires of Jan. 13, 1939. Police warned that the number of fatalities will rise as they gain access to affected areas.

Natural Disaster

Australia's worst natural disaster was on March 4, 1899, when more than 400 people died as Tropical Cyclone Mahina struck Bathurst Bay on Cape York in the far northeast, according to the Australian government's Emergency Management Authority.

Rudd has promised to rebuild the affected areas "brick-by- brick," as the fire devastated towns such as Narbethong and Marysville, located about 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the Victorian capital, Melbourne.

The Australian government has a "no cap" approach to how much it will extend to communities to rebuild. Last week it and the Victorian government offered A$51 million ($26 million) to help businesses rebuild after the fires.

Victoria also promised stamp duty waivers for those replacing homes and cars lost in the blazes.

Police Investigation

The state government fee on a A$500,000 ($323,400) home won't be paid, saving victims as much as A$21,970. The first A$1,050 of duty on a car won't be paid, meaning the purchase of a new vehicle will be free of the state charge, Treasurer John Lenders said Feb. 19.

Police are continuing to investigate arson as the cause of the fires.

Brendan Sokaluk has been remanded in custody by a court in Melbourne, charged with arson over a fire that killed 21 people at Churchill, southeast of the city.

Sokaluk, who faces charges of arson causing death and intentionally or recklessly starting a bushfire, will have his next hearing on May 26, a spokeswoman for Melbourne Magistrate's Court said by telephone on Feb. 16.

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