Bushfire in Oz pulls death toll to 173

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Australian Bushfires
Melbourne, Feb 10: The bushfire death toll in southern Australia has risen to 173, even as several towns have been completely ruined.

According to news.com.au, the police are hunting down the arsonist believed to be responsible for lighting one of the worst of Victoria fires. 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 that region.

The death toll from the bushfires was certain to rise further.

Yesterday, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd likened lighting the blazes to mass murder.

Twenty-four fires were still burning and towns remained under threat as authorities moved deeper into the ruins of more than 700 homes which were lost.

Bushfire relief funds were receiving a million dollars in donations per hour yesterday, with 15 million dollars pledged by last night. ictorian Premier John Brumby has vowed to rebuild the razed communities, but as the toll mounts the grim fates of many residents are becoming clearer.

Thirty-five people died in Kinglake alone, while 22 deaths had been confirmed in St Andrews out of a population of just 1500.

Strathewen, with only 200 people prior to the bushfires, had lost 30 residents in the last official count. Firefighters dubbed the tiny town the "Valley of Death".

A bridge out of town was damaged, leaving those still there as the firestorm swept through with little chance of survival.

Three bodies were found crowded in a bath. The victims may have hoped the water would save them but instead it boiled in the intense heat.

A temporary morgue was set up at Victoria's State Coronial Services Centre to accommodate the mounting toll of victims. Coroner Jennifer Coate said 101 victims had already been received into the facility.

She said the makeshift morgue was similar to the one set up during the London terrorist bombings.

Concerned relatives were using the Herald Sun's bushfire message board to post pleas for information about the whereabouts of loved ones. Some had been reunited, while for others the agonising wait for news remained.

Specialist teams used in the aftermath of the Bali bombings were continuing the gruesome task of identifying victims as hundreds of reinforcement firefighters were heading from interstate to relieve crews which had been working nearly non-stop since the emergency began.

The army now has more than 400 soldiers working alongside emergency services.

Brumby said yesterday a royal commission would be held into the fires and the bushfire policy that promoted either leaving early or staying to defend your property.

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ANI

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