After Fires, Australians Search for Culprits

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Church goers cry during a memorial service in remembrance of those affected by the Victorian bushfires on Feb. 13, 2009 in Melbourne, Australia

Marisa Robbins knew her father didn't want to leave his home as raging bushfires closed in on them in the hills north of Melbourne. There was no order to evacuate. State officials told residents they could choose to fight to save their property.

What Robbins' 85-year-old father, Lloyd Martin, didn't realize was that the blaze he and his wife Mary decided to battle was like nothing seen in in the area in living memory. "It was like a massive fireball," says Robbins, who was at her home in Melbourne during the fire. "People have explained it leapt across in giant bounds like huge balls of fires, and all the sprinklers in the world would not have been enough to stop it." Martin and his wife died. "The CFA (Country Fire Authority) should have told them this fireball was coming and to get out," Robbins says. "If I had known, I would have got a helicopter if need be and flown up there and made dad leave."

The horrific Black Saturday fires that swept Australia's far southeast on Feb. 7 are estimated to have killed 201, destroyed more than 1,800 houses, left 7,000 homeless and scorched nearly 990,000 acres (400,000 hectares). As bodies continue to be recovered from charred homesteads, there is growing anger over how the disaster could have happened — and a will to ensure it never does again. (See pictures from Australia's deadly bushfires.)

The Victoria state government set up a royal commission headed by a retired Supreme Court of Victoria judge to look into the causes of the blaze. But already many have made their minds up over who should take the blame: a local misfit who has been arrested for allegedly lighting one of the fires that razed four towns and killed at least 10 people.

Gardener Brendan Sokaluk was reportedly seen sitting on the roof of his house at Churchill about 75 miles (120 km) east of Melbourne watching the flames tear into the hills above his town on Feb. 7. Five days later the 39-year-old, who had unsuccessfully tried several times to join the local fire brigade, was charged with arson causing death, lighting a bushfire and possession of child pornography.

Soon after his arrest police shifted him from the country jail in the heart of the fire zone to Melbourne out of fear for his safety. A judge suppressed his name but he was soon outed on the Internet. Bloggers brayed for his execution and condemned him to burn in hell. He is now in solitary confinement.

A woman who had a relationship with Sokaluk was also the target of public anger after photos were published of her wearing a firefighters jacket and toy angel wings; news reports claimed she had a dog named Miss Pyro. Her family issued a statement pleading for the harassment to stop.

But there has been plenty of blame to go around. Residents of the tiny town of Kinglake, where dozens died, filed a class action lawsuit against an electric utility that allegedly operated a power line that snapped in the heat, sending off sparks that may have started one of the fires. Environmentalists have also been criticized for lobbying against the clearing of trees near homes and the use of controlled burns to reduce underbrush. (Read "How to Survive a Disaster.")

Still others are attacking officials for failing to implement a proposed telephone warning system, and for giving homeowners the choice of evacuating or staying to fight the fire. "I know the sort of people my parents were," says Robbins. "If mum had come out and told dad that they had a call from the CFA that there was a firestorm and get in the car and go, he would have gone," she says. "There should have been a graded warning system, air raid sirens and a mandatory evacuation system."

All these issues are likely to be examined by the royal commission, which is expected to start public hearings in May. John Brumby, Victoria's premier, says the inquiry should leave "no stone unturned. Every bit of information is to be on the table." But a tragedy of this scale will not be easily explained. Says Robbins: "I personally am never going to get over losing my parents and people will never get over losing a loved one. But I think knowing that they didn't die in vain and things have changed is what will be important."

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