Date: 2/15/2009

By TANALEE SMITH
Associated Press Writer

WHITTLESEA, Australia (AP) — Australians mourning the lives lost in horrific wildfires last week sought comfort at churches Sunday even as firefighters continued to battle a dozen blazes still burning in the state.

Fire engines raced past the small, 140-year-old Christ Church in Whittlesea while the Archbishop of Melbourne was leading a service, their sirens briefly drowning out a song.

More than 180 people were killed and 1,800 homes destroyed when some 400 blazes — some thought to have been deliberately set — tore across Victoria state on Feb. 7 in Australia’s worst-ever wildfire disaster.

Across the 1,500-square mile (3,900-square kilometer) fire zone, residents and friends gathered at church services to pray for the dead. The scene was repeated at churches across the country.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd attended a service in the town of Wandong, where he joined residents in placing leaves and flowers into a bowl of water in a symbol of remembrance and rebuilding.

In Whittlesea, about 60 miles (100 kilometers) north of the state capital of Melbourne, Governor General Quentin Bryce joined about 200 people who overflowed into Christ Church’s yard for an hourlong service.

“You could feel the togetherness there,” Bryce said. “It will give people support and comfort in their grief.”

Police have arrested a man in connection with one of the fires and he will appear in court Monday to face charges of arson causing death, intentionally lighting a wildfire, and possessing child pornography. His identity is being concealed by the court because of the risk of reprisal attacks against him or his family.

One other fire, which nearly destroyed the village of Marysville, is also being investigated as arson.

In another blaze, which destroyed Kinglake, fire victims have launched a class action lawsuit against power supplier SP Ausnet, arguing that downed power lines sparked and set fire to a nearby pine forest.

“We stand ready to assist the relevant authorities with their inquiries if it is necessary for us to do so,” SP Ausnet spokeswoman Louisa Graham said in a statement.

Victoria Chief Commissioner Christine Nixon said Sunday that police were aware of the reported class action suit. She declined to answer directly when asked if police had removed a section of power line and a power pole as evidence.

“At this stage we are not able to confirm how it started,” Nixon told Nine Network television. “I understand there is some legal action that people are taking, but at this stage we’re still investigating its cause.”

Visitors from outside the fire-ravaged area also attended church services in the fire zone Sunday to show support for the families affected by the disaster.

“I didn’t know anybody directly affected by the fires, but this is something that’s touched the hearts of everybody,” said Sharyn Mitzzi, who drove up from Melbourne with her husband, Raymond.

They heard the vicar on the radio last week and decided to come to Whittlesea to offer their home to an affected family for a weekend respite.

Whittlesea has become a center for relief efforts for neighboring towns such as Kinglake, where scores of people died and which was almost completely destroyed.

An outpouring of charity has raised more than 90 million Australian dollars ($60 million) in donations to official relief funds.

Community Services Minister Jenny Macklin announced Sunday that families whose homes were destroyed would get a AU$10,000 cash payment to start the rebuilding process. The federal and Victoria government have promised millions of dollars more and say a comprehensive rebuilding strategy will be released later this week.

Wildfires are common each Australian summer, when tinder-dry forests ignite in hot and windy conditions and can burn for weeks on end. Government researchers say the causes of up to half the 60,000 fires in Australia each year are suspicious, with non-suspect causes being lightning strikes, power line mishaps and human activity such as sparks from power tools.

Firefighters, including specialists flown in from the United States, continued to battle about a dozen blazes in Victoria, and a pall of dark smoke hung over a huge area, including Melbourne.

Cooler, even wet conditions were allowing firefighters to make good progress in containing the fire, the Country Fire Association said.

In Whittlesea, volunteer firefighter Jeff Rowden, 45, said Sunday’s church service brought solace to his brigade.

“I think it’s good to be around people who shared the same thing and know what you’ve been through, so we can get back to our normal lives,” Rowden said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

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