Australia’s PM announces day of mourning

A dirt track runs through the burnt out forest in the Kinglake region of Victoria state.
A national day of mourning and a memorial service will honor the victims of the past week’s wildfires in southeastern Australia, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced Thursday.

“It is important, it is very important that the nation grieves,” Rudd said, according to the Australian Associated Press. The government is working with the Council of Churches on the details of the service. The announcement, made before parliament, followed discussions with John Brumby, the premier of the hard-hit southeastern state of Victoria, and opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull. Rudd said details will be announced soon. Meanwhile, two men, who had been arrested Thursday in connection with the deadly wildfires, were released without being charged, police said. Victoria state police had told CNN that the two — who had been taken into custody and were “assisting” police earlier — had been behaving suspiciously in or near Marysville, a town where roughly 100 people have died in the fires. It was not immediately clear what the behavior was or why the men were released. Meanwhile, authorities said they feared the death toll from the fires, which remained at 181 on Wednesday, could reach as high as 300.

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Authorities are basing that figure on the number of people who remain missing and the number of homes that have been destroyed. Rescue workers have not been able to thoroughly investigate many of those homes because of the intense heat. See map of fire-hit areas » Firefighters have battled blazes since Saturday — including several new fires that broke out Tuesday night, which officials say almost certainly were the result of arson. About 35 fires continued burning Thursday morning, authorities said. But none of those blazes posed an immediate threat to towns and their intensity had lessened, according to police. Authorities said Wednesday that more than 500 people had been injured, nearly 1,000 homes had been destroyed, thousands had been left homeless and at least 365,000 hectares (901,935 acres) of the Australian countryside had been burned black. Watch fireman talk about saving a koala »

Those numbers were expected to continue to rise Thursday. Arson is thought responsible for all the destruction in the towns of Marysville and Kinglake. As many as half the homes in Kinglake have burned to the ground, police say.