WHITTLESEA, Australia — Australians mourned the victims of deadly wildfires at church services across the country Sunday as news emerged of a class action lawsuit against a power company over the cause of one of the blazes.
More than 180 people were killed and 1,800 homes destroyed when some 400 blazes tore across Victoria state on Feb. 7 in Australia's worst-ever wildfire disaster. Police have arrested one man on arson charges connected to one fire and suspect foul play in at least one other.
A law firm lodged a suit in Victoria's Supreme Court against power supplier SP Ausnet alleging negligence for allowing an overhead power line to fall, starting a wildfire, The Age newspaper reported.
SP Ausnet was not immediately available to comment on the report.
Residents of towns in the 1,500-square mile (3,900-square kilometer) fire zone gathered at church services Sunday to pray for the dead and seek comfort from each other. The scene was repeated at churches across the country, which has been deeply shocked by the tragedy.
At Whittlesea, a town about 60 miles (100 kilometers) north of the state capital of Melbourne, about 200 people attended the Whittlesea Christ Church for services led by the Archbishop of Melbourne, Philip Freier, and attended by Governor General Quentin Bryce.
"As a brigade and the community, a service like this brings everyone together," Whittlesea volunteer firefighter Jeff Rowden said after the church service. "I think it's good to be around people who shared the same thing and know what you've been through, so we can get back to our normal lives."
Visitors from outside the fire-ravaged area also attended to show support for the families affected by the disaster.
"I didn't know anybody directly affected by the fires, but this is something that's touched the hearts of everybody," said Sharyn Mitzzi, who drove up from Melbourne with her husband, Raymond. They heard the vicar on the radio last week and decided to come to Whittlesea to offer their home to an affected family for a weekend respite.
Whittlesea has become a center for relief efforts for neighboring towns such as Kinglake, where scores of people died and which was almost completely destroyed.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd also attended church services in Victoria and was to tour Kinglake, one of the hardest-hit towns, later in the afternoon.
An outpouring of charity has raised more than 90 million Australian dollars ($60 million) in donations to official relief funds.
Community Services Minister Jenny Macklin announced Sunday that families whose homes were destroyed would get a $AU10,000 cash payment to start the rebuilding process. The federal and Victoria government have promised millions of dollars more and say a comprehensive rebuilding strategy would be released later this week.
Wildfires are common each Australian summer, when tinder-dry forests ignite in hot and windy conditions and can burn for weeks on end. Government researchers say the causes of up to half the 60,000 fires in Australia each year are suspicious, with non-suspect causes being lightning strikes, power line mishaps and human activity such as sparks from power tools.
Victoria Chief Commissioner Christine Nixon said Sunday that police were aware of the reported class action suit involving the Kinglake fire. She declined to answer directly when asked if police had removed a section of power line and a power pole as evidence.
"At this stage we are not able to confirm how it started," Nixon told Nine Network television. "I understand there is some legal action that people are taking, but at this stage we're still investigating its cause."
The firm reportedly behind the action, Slidders Lawyers, said on its Web site it was helping landowners and leaseholders get compensation for wildfires that occurred in 2003, 2006, 2007 and 2009. It invited people affected by the recent disaster to register details with the firm.
It offered no other details, and no one at the firm was immediately available to comment.
Firefighters, including specialists flown in from the United States, continued to battle about a dozen blazes in Victoria, and a pall of dark smoke hung over a huge area, including Melbourne.
Cooler, even wet conditions were allowing firefighters to make good progress in containing the fire, the Country Fire Association said.