Disaster officials found charred bodies on roadsides and in crashed cars - grim signs of the futile attempt to flee raging wildfires fed by 96 kilometer winds, record heat and drought that caught even fire-savvy Australians by surprise.
As the death toll rose on Tuesday to 173 in Australia's worst wildfire disaster, suspicions that some of the 400 blazes were caused by arson led police to declare crime scenes in some of the incinerated towns, police Senior Constable Cendra Jackson said.
The fires near Melbourne in southeastern Australia destroyed more than 750 homes, left 5,000 people homeless and burned 544,000 acres of land, the Victoria Country Fire Service said.
The scale of the disaster shocked a nation that endures deadly firestorms every few years. Officials said panic and the freight-train speed of the walls of flames probably accounted for the unusually high death toll.