A POLICE task force will be formed as early as today to investigate the suspected arson attacks that caused Saturday's firestorms in Victoria.
Police say the death toll is certain to rise when remote and burning areas are checked, and some fear initial figures will double as the full extent of the devastation becomes clear.
Firefighters reported driving past burnt cars containing unknown numbers of victims who tried to flee the fire fronts.
The Victorian Coroner's Court morgue is full, and hospitals have been asked to store their own dead during the crisis.
In NSW a man has been charged with arson for allegedly lighting a fire on the Central Coast. The man, 31, was arrested yesterday and charged with intentionally causing a fire and setting fire to another person's property.
He was refused bail and is to appear in Gosford Local Court today. The fire at Peats Ridge, near Gosford, burnt through 175 hectares of bush.
Some of the Victorian fire areas will remain closed for days as police disaster victim identification teams check the most devastated spots. Two teams from NSW arrived in Victoria late yesterday. More teams from interstate are expected today as a national disaster plan, designed to respond to a terrorist attack, is invoked.
Police say the intense heat means some victims have been in effect cremated and can be identified only through jewellery or circumstantial evidence.
The number of victims means identification will take several days. Priority will be given to victims found in cars on roads so areas can be reopened. Then the teams will move to damaged and destroyed farms and houses.
Victoria's chief police commissioner, Christine Nixon, urged the public to be patient. "This will take some time. We will do this as fast as we can so that people can return to their properties, but it is a complex matter, and we must be accurate."
It has been revealed that arsonists were lighting fresh fires in the most devastated areas already under siege.
The Country Fire Authority deputy operations chief, Steve Warrington, said that in Gippsland an arsonist was setting new fires in front of the existing Churchill blaze.
"We had predictions yesterday that we thought there would be spotting of about seven or eight kilometres," he told ABC radio.
"We know we do have someone who is lighting fires in this community. While we often think it's spotting, we also know that there are people lighting fires deliberately."
Police say that while their first priority is to help with safety and welfare, the investigation into the cause of the multiple fires will be exhaustive.
The deputy police commissioner, Kieran Walshe, said the areas had to be declared safe before investigators could move in but added that initial evidence pointed to several arsonists being responsible for much of the devastation.
"We suspect a number [of fires] have been deliberately lit," he said.
Senior police met at the weekend and agreed to set up a taskforce made up of arson squad investigators and crime department detectives backed by forensic science experts.
It may be combined with the existing Ignus investigation that is hunting an arsonist suspected of lighting a big fire in Gippsland.
Investigators will check areas where the fires started to try to establish the cause and to cross-check the locations of known arsonists. Police have promised to prosecute arsonists with homicide-related offences if they are identified.
Mr Walshe said an offender implicated in the fatal fires could be charged with the offence of arson causing death, a crime with a maximum penalty of 25 years' jail.
Anyone who lit a fire that resulted in several deaths would face multiple counts.
An arsonist responsible for a fatal fire in Saturday's conditions could be charged with the alternative offence of reckless murder, which carries a possible life sentence.
Mr Walshe said that anyone who was found to have caused the fires through stupidity would be charged with recklessly causing a bushfire, which has a maximum jail term of 15 years.
Ms Nixon, who toured the fire areas yesterday, said it would take some communities years to recover. Firefighters, emergency service workers and community groups had been doing an amazing job, she said.
"You see so many people helping each other in the devastation," she said.