KINGLAKE, Australia – The federal government said Thursday it will clear away hurdles that have stalled a nationwide fire alert telephone system, after thousands of people were caught by surprise by the most deadly wildfires in Australia's history.
Privacy laws and bickering between state officials over funding had snarled the plan for years, The Australian newspaper reported Thursday. But there is a new urgency after the weekend blazes in Victoria state killed at least 181 people. Officials said the death toll could exceed 200.
Attorney General Robert McClelland said the plan had been raised in 2004 under the previous government, but state officials had failed to agree on details and no steps have been taken to change privacy laws that bar emergency services from accessing the national telephone number data base.
"Clearly a warning system would be useful," McClelland told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio. He said had advocated a system that sends a barrage of automated messages to all phones in a targeted geographic area since he saw a similar system in action in Hawaii
David Quilty, managing director of the telecommunications company Telstra Corp., which is working on the system, told the broadcaster that the government "is now looking to move expeditiously" to get the system installed.
The announcement came a day after residents of towns ravaged by the wildfires returned for the first time to find twisted metal and blackened debris where their homes once stood.
"Where do you start? Where do you start?" said Peter Denson, standing blank-faced amid the ruins of his home in Kinglake, where at least 39 people were killed and the town all but destroyed.
"It's like a big atom bomb has gone off," he said.
Thousands of mostly volunteer firefighters were still battling more than a dozen fires across the state Thursday.
Rain overnight led to several fire alerts being downgraded, Country Fire Authority spokesman Mark Glover told Australian Broadcasting. "It's dampened down things in the southern part (of the state) quite nicely," he said.
But Glover added that people in some areas were warned to remain vigilant as large fires continued to rage,
After the fires, authorities sealed off some towns because the grim task of collecting bodies from collapsed buildings was proceeding slowly and because they wanted to prevent residents from disturbing potential crime scenes. Embers still posed a threat of flare-ups.
While there was free access to many areas in the fire zone, tensions rose as people demanded to be allowed to check on their homes, pets and possessions. Police granted some restricted access Wednesday, and urged people to be patient.
Victorian state Premier John Brumby said there could be 50 to 100 fatalities just in the small township of Marysville, where so far only eight residents had been confirmed dead. The town was still closed off.
Marysville had a population of 518 in 2006, according to an official census. It was almost completely destroyed in the fire.
Arson specialists completed the initial stage of their investigation and found six main starting points for Saturday's fires.
They determined foul play in one case — near the town of Churchill, about 90 miles southeast of the state capital, Melbourne — and a suspect was being sought.
Of the other five fire sources, four were not suspicious, officials said. The cause of one blaze, the Marysville fire, had not yet been determined.
An estimated 60,000 fires burn each year in Australia, most of which are started accidentally by people, lightning strikes or power line failures.
McClelland said Wednesday that anyone found guilty of purposefully causing a deadly fire could face life in prison if convicted.
Residents returned to Kinglake, about 70 miles north of Melbourne, picking their way past emergency workers were removing burned debris and cutting down trees that appeared ready to fall. Power lines — the electricity supply long cut — were strewn across some streets.
Some houses bore makeshift signs with messages from survivors to loved ones who might come looking for them.
"All out ... we shall return," said one sign.
More than 400 fires roared through Victoria on Saturday, destroying more than 1,000 houses, leaving some 5,000 people homeless and scorching 1,100 square miles. The blazes fed on tinder dry plant life after record heat and a severe drought and were sped along by 60 mph winds.
The Bureau of Meteorology gave new information Wednesday on just how extreme Saturday's conditions were: A high temperature of 115 degrees in Melbourne shattered the city's record of 114 set Jan. 13, 1939 — a day known as Black Friday for wildfires that killed 71 people.
Some survivors are living in tents erected by emergency services on sports fields. Others moved in with friends or at relief centers.
Police said they were looking into rumors of looters at some destroyed houses in abandoned areas. It was not clear if those people owned the houses or were searching for food, clothes or other necessities.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd ordered officials to loosen regulations that give survivors access to a package of $6.6 million in government cash payments. The Red Cross said its government-backed wildfire fund had received more than $22 million. Police and other organizations were collecting clothes, toys and housewares.