German Chancellor Angela Merkel sent Australia her condolences over deadly fires tearing through the country. Thousands of firefighters continue to battle blazes that are expected to have claimed over 200 lives.
Firefighters are still trying to get control over many fires
In a message sent to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd on Tuesday, Feb. 10, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she had heard the news with deep shock and voiced her sympathy to the families of victims and the Australian people.
Police searched for arsonists in Australia's south-east Wednesday as officials defended their handling of forest fires expected to have claimed over 200 lives.
The official death toll from Saturday's inferno stands at 181, more than doubling the body count in the previous worst forest fires in 1983 that also burned north of Melbourne, the Victoria state capital.
The extent of damage and loss of life is still unknown
Army bulldozers were out clearing the path for police forensic teams to enter hamlets cut off by smoldering trees trunks and burned-out vehicles.
Many of the dead were caught in their cars after leaving too late, prompting fire chiefs to reinforce past warnings that people must either flee the fire early or work up a plan to defend their property and stick with it.
Victoria state Premier John Brumby defended the "leave early or stay and fight" policy advice against criticism that he should have ordered an evacuation of those in the path of the fire.
"That policy has served the state very, very well for the past 20 years," he said.
Victoria chief fire officer Russell Rees also insisted the right advice was given, despite Saturday's being Melbourne's hottest day on record and strong winds creating conditions for the perfect firestorm.
Firefighters are doing all they can to battle the blazes
Over 4,000 firefighters continue to battle the 33 fires burning in Victoria, with 23 of them still out of control. The firefighters were backburning to starve fires of fuel and extending control lines on Wednesday and warmer weather was forecast for the coming weekend.
"We've still got several significant fires burning across the state, but the weather conditions at the moment have stilled a little bit, which is allowing some good active work," said emergency official Nina Cullen.
Victoria state police have launched the nation's biggest arson investigation, dubbed "Operation Phoenix", and have posted a A$100,000 (US $65,400 or 50,662 euro) reward for the conviction of anyone for deliberately starting the fire.
Australia is considered by many scientists to be the most fire-prone country on earth. Most of its fires are ignited by lightning. Fire officials monitor lightning strikes and any fire that does not match with a strike is assumed to be started by people, either accidentally or deliberately.