Victorian Premier John Brumby says the death toll from the bushfires will rise well beyond 200 and the coroner had conceded as much.
“There’s still a large number of people – in excess of 50 – who are unconfirmed and essentially these are people who the coroner believes are already deceased, but are not yet identified,” he told reporters in Mudgegonga on Tuesday.
“When you see these areas from the air it’s just a sickening feeling, particularly Kinglake and Marysville … there’s just hundreds and hundreds of houses completely obliterated so the toll will continue to rise.”
Earlier on Tuesday, the official death toll rose to 181.
Victorian police say they are closing in on a suspected arsonist they believe lit one of the massive fires.
Crime Department Assistant Commissioner Dannye Moloney is close to releasing a photofit of a suspected arsonist operating in the Churchill area in Gippsland just days before last Saturday’s inferno.
“There are suspicious fires out there,” Mr Moloney said.
“The Churchill fires, as far as we can conclude at this stage, must be considered as suspicious and that is being investigated as we speak.
“All the other fire sites are obviously slowly but surely being investigated by our arson experts and as the reports come in and as they go through their scientific examinations, we will establish the causes of what happened out there last Saturday and Sunday.”
The Churchill Jeeralang fire has so far ravaged 40,000ha. It has a 130km perimeter.
Twenty-one people have so far been found dead in the ruins of the Gippsland inferno.
Police Chief Commissioner Christine Nixon expects the death toll to continue rising as fires are contained, allowing police and emergency workers to move in.
“It’s a very sad thing for all of us and our communities that so many people have lost their lives, but we believe that, towards the end of the weekend, the toll will settle in terms of the numbers,” Ms Nixon said.
A temporary morgue has been set up at Victoria’s State Coronial Services Centre to accommodate the mounting toll of victims.
So far, 101 victims had been received into the facility.
The Country Fire Authority (CFA) has defended its firefighters and the “stay and defend” policy.
CFA chief fire officer Russell Rees said the policy, under which homeowners remain on their property to protect it from fire, was based on sound evidence.
“It is the application of that policy and a lack of an alternative that we need to work on,” Mr Rees told reporters.
“People need to understand that a late departure is the most deadly.
“We have said, and it is clearly evident, that fires can come without warning and very rapidly, and that you may not receive a warning and that you may not have a fire truck at your front gate.”
He said emergency services had warned last week that Victoria was facing a threat unprecedented in its history.
“The fire service planned for this day – their planning was meticulous and detailed – it was a thorough plan put into place with efficiency and effectiveness, but the fires, as you all know, were enormous,” Mr Rees said.
“Our emergency services worked well together and I am enormously proud of their efforts – they did everything possible they could in the circumstances but they are ready, and stand ready, to learn and further improve.
“Our people can hold their heads up high and I ask you to help them to do that.”
How you can help
To donate to the Red Cross State Government Victorian Bushfire Appeal Fund:
* Visit http://www.redcross.org.au
* Phone 1800 811 700
* Any NAB, ANZ, Westpac or Commonwealth Bank branch
* Any Bunnings store
* By direct deposit to the Victorian Bushfire Relief Fund – BSB 082-001, Account number 860-046-797