MELBOURNE, Australia – A court lifted the ban today on identifying the only arson suspect so far in Australia’s recent deadly wildfires, and authorities urged people not to target him in their rage over the disaster’s more than 180 deaths.
The case of Brendan Sokaluk, a 39-year-old man accused of lighting one of hundreds of fires that swept southern Victoria state on Feb. 7, went before a court packed with media and onlookers today, but he chose to stay in police protective custody rather than attend.
Sokaluk was arrested Friday and charged with one count of arson causing death and one of lighting a wildfire in connection to a blaze known as the Churchill fire. He faces a maximum sentence of 25 years on the first charge, and 15 years on the second. He was also charged with possessing child pornography, which carries a 5-year maximum sentence.
Extremely hot, dry and windy conditions on Feb. 7 fanned dozens of fires into raging infernos that reduced entire towns to ashes. The confirmed death toll is 181 but is expected to exceed 200. More than 1,800 homes were destroyed and 7,500 people displaced.
A police document presented to the court alleges that Sokaluk “intentionally and without lawful excuse” set fire to a timber plantation in southeastern Victoria state on Feb. 7 and “did thereby commit arson causing the death of another person.”
Officials have said previously that the Churchill fire killed at least 21 people, though officials cited only 11 deaths in court. They did not immediately explain the discrepancy, but one reason could be that the charges are connected to just part of the fire.
Experts say deadly arson in wildfire cases is difficult to prove, partly because different wildfires often join one another, making it tough to link a fire set by an arsonist with the blaze that eventually kills people. The Churchill fire was one such combination of blazes.
Police suspect arson in at least two other fires, but have ruled out foul play in the rest.