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Some Wildfires in Australia Believed to be the Work of Arsonists

02/10/2009 -As the worst bushfires in Australia's history continue to consume the southern state of Victoria, police fear the death toll will rise to over 300 as the search continues for an arsonist believed responsible for at least one of the fires.

The fires that broke out over the weekend have left 181 confirmed dead,according to The New York Times, butThe Sydney Morning Herald reports that police expect the death toll to reach over 300 as they begin to investigate areas that were too dangerous to examine earlier.

Seven hundred and fifty houses have been destroyed, leaving 5,000 people homeless,reports The Los Angeles Times.

The government has created a task force that will investigate how many of the fires were deliberately set. According to the Herald, police say they are already on the trail of one man believed to have committed arson.

Police say they are closing in on an arsonist thought responsible for the Churchill-Jeeralang fire in Gippsland and recent fires at nearby Boolarra.

It is expected police will soon make public an image of a man sought for questioning over the fires.

Arsonists will be charged with murder, according to the NY Times.

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(For more graphics of the fires' locations, click here.)

The fires have also made Australian officials second guess the country's "Leave Early or Stay and Defend" policy, which trains homeowners to fight wildfires threatening their homes,reports the LA Times. Firefighters believe some residents died while battling the blazes surrounding their homes.

The policy, until now, has been a success.

Officials say the "stay or go" policy has been demonstrably successful in saving both lives and property in Australia, and is now the most talked-about strategy in the firefighting world. Australian fire officials travel the globe explaining their ideas to officials who are looking for ways to better deploy fire crews.

The United States has looked into adopting Australia's stay or go policy, with seven counties in Southern California actively discussing a hybrid policy that allows people to either evacuate or stay and fight the flames threatening their homes.