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Australia Fire Evacuees Return To Ruins

Residents of towns scorched off the map by the worst wildfires in Australia's history returned to their homes for the first time Wednesday and found scenes of utter devastation.

Victoria state Premier John Brumby expressed concern about the emotional impact of the sight of the destruction on survivors, especially those who had not seen television footage of the disaster's scale.

"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 in Saturday's inferno.

Denson, a carpenter, has lived in Kinglake since 1977. He said he wants to rebuild, but his house, now a blackened pile of timber, bricks and twisted metal, was not insured because he could not afford it.

"It's like a big atom bomb has gone off," said Denson.

Authorities had 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 were still posing a threat of flare-ups.

While there is free access to many areas in the fire zone, tensions have been rising in recent days as demands rose for police to let residents back to the worst-hit places to check on their homes and check on pets and other animals left behind. Police urged people to be patient.

Police said Wednesday that arson specialists had completed the initial stage of their investigation and concluded that there were six main sources of fire on Saturday.

They found foul play in one case - near the town of Churchill, about 90 miles southeast of the state capital of Melbourne - and a suspect was being sought.

"Is there an arrest imminent? No. Are we progressing the investigation in a positive manner? Yes," said assistant commissioner Dannye Moloney, the officer in charge of the massive investigation.

CBS News correspondent Barry Petersen reported that the usual sentence for arson in Australia is anything up to 25 years in prison. However, if someone is apprehended in this case, they're expected to face murder charges, which can carry a life sentence.

The official death toll stood at 181 on Wednesday, but bodies were still being collected and Brumby said it would "exceed 200 deaths."

Of the other five fire sources, four were not suspicious and one was still being investigated. An estimated 60,000 fires burn each year in Australia, most of which are lit accidentally or by lightning strikes or power lines.

Australia's top law officer, federal Attorney General Robert McLelland, said Wednesday anyone found guilty of lighting a fire that caused multiple deaths would face life in prison if convicted.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd told the Seven Network late Tuesday "they should be allowed to rot in jail."

Victoria's Chief Commissioner of police, Christine Nixon, said there had been reports of suspicious behavior amid the destruction.

"We're having some reports of looting, but not a great deal," Nixon told Sky News television. "There are some reports from some people who are seeing strange people who are sifting through parts of houses that have been burnt."

It was not clear if those people owned the houses, or were searching for food, clothes or other necessities.

Residents were allowed to return to Kinglake, about 70 miles north of Melbourne, but their progress was slow because emergency workers were still 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 ripped through Victoria on Saturday, fed by 60 mph winds, record heat and a severe drought.

More information emerged Wednesday indicating just how extreme Saturday's conditions were. The Bureau of Meteorology said Saturday's high temperature of 115 degrees Fahrenheit in Melbourne shattered the city's record of 114 F set on Jan. 13, 1939 - a day known as Black Friday for wildfires that killed 71 people.

Fire authorities said the official tally of houses destroyed was more than 1,000. Some 5,000 people are homeless, and 1,100 square miles of land has been scorched.

Thousands of mostly volunteer firefighters were still battling more than a dozen fires across the state on Wednesday. The weather was cool, but gusting winds constantly threatened efforts to get them under control. Forecasters said temperatures could rise again by the weekend.

The Red Cross said its government-backed wildfire fund had received more than 33 million Australian dollars ($22 million). Some of the survivors were living in tents erected by emergency services on sports fields. Others stayed with friends or at relief centers.

Rudd on Wednesday ordered officials to loosen regulations that give survivors access to a package of 10 million Australian dollars ($6.6 million) government cash payments. He was responding to journalist Gary Hughes' published account of being told by officials he could not get any money without presenting a bank statement or other identity documents.