Australia wildfire death toll reaches 200
The confirmed death toll from Australia's deadly wildfires reached the grim milestone of 200 Tuesday, and a police official said some bodies reduced to ash in the inferno would never be identified.
Investigators confirmed 11 more people had died in one of more than 400 fires that raged across southern Victoria state on Feb. 7, destroying more than 1,800 homes and scorching more than 3,900 square kilometres of farms, forests and towns.
In a statement, Victoria police said the newest confirmed deaths occurred in a fire that razed the town of Kinglake and surrounding areas. Police spokesman Marty Beveridge said the death count would go higher as more remains are identified.
The sobering news came as a senior police commander said some of the victims of the deadly blazes will likely never be identified because the fires were so intense their bodies were cremated.
Also Tuesday, a firefighter was killed during a recovery effort in the devastated village of Marysville, police said. A police spokesman said no details on the firefighter's cause of death were immediately available.
Ten days after the disaster, police say they have not been able to give a definitive death toll because of the difficulty in finding and identifying remains.
In some cases, all that is left of the victims is ash, police Deputy Commissioner Kieran Walshe told The Associated Press.
"Fire does terrible damage to bodies and the identification process is going to be a lengthy process and it's going to require scientific examination," Walshe said. "In some cases it will be within a few weeks … in other cases it may well be we're unable to be definitive about the identity."
Where there is only ash, victim identification crews rely on other clues like jewellry found in the ruins to help attach names to the remains, Walshe said.
He declined to say how many bodies may still be in the disaster zone. He said police believed they had cleared all bodies from burned open areas, and were now sifting through ruined homes.
Along with those killed, more than 7,500 people were displaced as extremely hot, dry and windy conditions drove the flames across the region.
Police suspect at least two of the fires were deliberately set, and have charged one man with arson causing death and lighting a wildfire. Brendan Sokaluk, 39, faces a maximum sentence of 25 years on the first charge and 15 years on the second. He is being held in protective custody to prevent revenge attacks against him.