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In Australia, Victoria state premier stands by 'stay and defend' policy

Despite a death toll from bush fires nearing 200, Victoria Premier John Brumby says a blanket evacuation for a million people is impractical.

February 11, 2009|Jennifer Bennett

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA — Despite a rising death toll from wildfires, the premier of the southern Australian province ravaged by the blazes defended the policy of allowing homeowners to stay and protect their homes.

Police have confirmed 181 people died in the fires, with at least 50 still missing. Officials have said the death toll could reach 300.

More than 900 homes have been destroyed, and 7,000 people have registered for assistance with the Red Cross, officials said.

Victoria state Premier John Brumby said today that a blanket evacuation order for a million people was not practical and that the government was maintaining its policy allowing residents to stay and battle fires if they wish.

"We've had a stay-or-go policy in this state for more than 20 years, and it's overwhelmingly served us well," he told Australian radio. "If you are going, you've got to go early. . . . If you stay, you must have in place the best possible fire plan."

Police are pursuing at least two suspects in an arson investigation in one of the fires and believe other blazes that have raged across more than 1,200 square miles may also have been set.

Brumby earlier announced that he would establish a royal commission of inquiry, normally headed by a judge with broad investigative power, to probe the worst wildfires in the country's history and the "stay and defend" policy.

Fires were still burning in the center of the state, and residents in several areas have been warned they may have to decide whether to leave or stay. About 3,000 firefighters from around the country were still battling 20 fires, with several blazes to the northeast of Melbourne threatening residential areas.

Phil Koperberg, former head of the New South Wales Rural Fire Service, said that it was far too early to start placing blame in the fires.

"I have been asked by many whether warnings were adequate, were town planning provisions appropriate, was there enough hazard reduction done," Koperberg wrote in a Sydney newspaper. "The answer is -- we don't know.

"There was nothing normal about these events and as agencies and communities respond to the unprecedented, we ought not be surprised, though horrified, when there is a tragic toll or loss," he wrote.

Three schools were destroyed in the fires, two in Kinglake and one in Marysville. Fifty-six others remain closed because of damage or approaching fires. Many roads in the area are impassible as a result of fire damage or because they are still littered with car wrecks that may contain bodies of fleeing residents.

The cost of rebuilding rural Victoria is now thought to be about $1.3 billion. Brumby has said money "will not be an issue" when it comes to rebuilding. "I've made it clear, and the prime minister has made it clear . . . that we will do whatever it takes to rebuild these communities," he said Tuesday night.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's $28-billion economic stimulus package, aimed at staving off recession in Australia, is set to receive Senate approval Thursday, and includes funds for schools, infrastructure spending and checks for low-income earners, students, families and single parents.

Much of the money set aside for Victoria is now expected to go toward the rebuilding effort.

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Bennett is a special correspondent.

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latimes.com/australiafires

More photos of the bush fires in southern Australia are available online.

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