Thursday, February 12th 2009, 6:29 pm
YEA, Australia (AP) -- With the death toll expected to rise and the prime minister saying it's "important, very important that the nation grieves," Australia prepared to observe an official day of mourning for the scores of people killed by wildfires last weekend.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd also ordered that military bases be opened to house some of the more than 5,000 people who lost their homes in Saturday's blazes.
At least 181 people have been killed, but officials say the death toll could exceed 200.
"In recognition of the terrible events of the past few days, I announce to the House that today the Victorian premier and I have agreed that there will be a national day of mourning and a national service of mourning for the victims of the Victorian bush fires," Rudd told Parliament.
The date has not yet been chosen.
"It is important, it is very important that the nation grieves," Rudd said.
Compounding the sorrow for some families is that the coroner's office for the state of Victoria has not released the bodies of their loved ones for funerals, and an official said the wait could take up to two weeks.
Victoria Police Chief Christine Nixon told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. that the coroner's office was just starting to collect information, including forensic samples, from families to identify the bodies. Officials have said some victims were burned beyond recognition.
State coroner Jennifer Coate has said the work could still take a week or two, Nixon told ABC, adding, "It's a long and slow process as we work our way through the so many people who have died."
The Victoria government said next-of-kin of anyone killed in the fire would receive a compassion and bereavement payment of about $6,500 toward funeral expenses.
Residents have been allowed back into some towns but others are still sealed off for the grim task of collecting bodies from collapsed buildings and to prevent residents from disturbing potential crime scenes if arson was suspected.
Teams are still searching Marysville, where authorities said there could be 50 to 100 deaths in the town that once had a population of about 550.
The Australian Defence Force bases that have been opened can accommodate up to 2,000 people, including meals, Rudd said.
The fires destroyed more than 1,000 houses and burned 1,100 square miles of land.
Many of the homeless are staying with family or friends, but not everyone has a place to go. Relief centers have sprung up in Yea, 68 miles north of Melbourne, and a few other towns, sheltering families and offering donations and other aid.
About 30 people were living in a dozen army tents on a sports field in Yea. Volunteers cooked hundreds of meals and others sorted donated clothing, bedding, toiletries and medicine. There was even a box of cell phone chargers.
Aid agencies and counselors set up shop, and a bulletin board advertised free housing offers, pet boarding, trailers to haul goods, laundry service and massages.
The Salvation Army brought in a mobile youth center, featuring computers with Internet access, a Wii, X-Boxes and a large movie screen with comfortable couches. A few teens bowled with the Wii outside, and about eight youths inside checked their MySpace pages or played online games.
"I kind of like it here," said Mark Petkovski, 11, whose family has lived in a tent here since their Flowerdale home burned to the ground. "You feel like you're camping."
While the children played, their parents sorted out insurance claims, picked up clothes and registered for government assistance.
Sean and Anthea Galpin were applying for assistance because Sean's workplace -- a conference center in Flowerdale -- would be not be running for a few months. The Galpins used sprinklers, a fire hose and even a mop to fight the fire at their seven-acre pasture in Glenburn while their newborn daughter and 2-year-old son slept in the house.
"It was our first time fighting a fire and I hope our last," said Anthea Galpin, cradling 3-month-old Lucy. "We were well-prepared but I was still in a panic. When that smoke rolls in and day turns to night and it's either fight or flee ... I wanted to run, but Sean had his head about him. It would have been a mistake to get in the car."
The fire burned to the edges of the lawn around their house, but their efforts paid off. "We're now living on a postage-stamp size bit of unburned area, but we did it," Sean Galpin said.
Firefighters battled more than a dozen blazes still burning Friday and issued warnings to towns under threat from embers leaping from nearby fires. Authorities warned the city of Healesville that a nearby fire had again became a threat overnight.
Authorities were investigating a suspicious scrub fire that started Thursday in the Melbourne suburb of Ivanhoe. Firefighters had the fire under control and police had released an image of a man wanted for questioning.
Arson specialists say they have concluded that the wildfires had six separate sources, four of which were not suspicious. Foul play was suspected in the fire that destroyed Marysville and they are convinced another deadly fire, known as the Churchill fire, was arson.
Wildfire arson carries a maximum penalty of 25 years in prison but authorities have said they will bring murder charges if they can. A murder conviction carries a maximum life sentence.