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Man charged in Australia fire

Wildlife caretaker Colleen Wood examines Bob the koala, saved from the fires in Gippsland, at the Mountain Ash Wildlife Centre in Rawson southeast of Melbourne, Australia, on Wednesday.  (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Wildlife caretaker Colleen Wood examines Bob the koala, saved from the fires in Gippsland, at the Mountain Ash Wildlife Centre in Rawson southeast of Melbourne, Australia, on Wednesday. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)

MELBOURNE, Australia – Authorities charged a man today with lighting one of Australia’s deadly wildfires and whisked him into protective custody amid national fury that arsonists may be to blame in the blazes that left more than 180 people dead.

Police said the man was charged with one count of arson causing death and lighting a wildfire near the town of Churchill, one of hundreds that raged through southeastern Victoria state last weekend, police said. He also was charged with possessing child pornography.

More than 180 people died and more than 1,800 homes were destroyed in the blazes.

The official toll for the Churchill fire is 21 dead.

The suspect’s identity was being kept secret for his own safety, Victoria Police Assistant Commissioner Dannye Moloney told a news conference. He was brought from Morwell, near the fire zone, to the state capital of Melbourne, Moloney said.

Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported that the man was charged in court in Morwell on the three charges, but that he did not appear.

He was ordered to undergo psychiatric evaluation, the broadcaster said.

The suspect faces a maximum penalty of 25 years in prison for the deadly arson charge, and a maximum of 15 years on the second arson charge.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced plans for a national day of mourning, without immediately naming a date.

“It is very important that the nation grieves,” he said Thursday.

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