Image: Marysville residents
Rick Rycroft  /  AP
Resident of Marysville Harley Ronalds, 17, left, hugs her sister-in-law, Virginia Ronalds, after they were brought to visit the remains of the town on Saturday.
updated 2/14/2009 6:15:47 AM ET 2009-02-14T11:15:47

Residents of the town worst hit by Australia's wildfire disaster made a brief and emotional return Saturday but were not allowed to stay because the entire village is being treated as an arson crime scene.

About 300 people from Marysville were loaded on buses with fire and police officials and driven through the town exactly one week after waves of blazes swept southeastern Victoria state, killing at least 181 people and razing 1,800 homes in a matter of hours.

One man has been arrested and charged with arson causing death and deliberately lighting a wildfire in connection to one of the fires, though not the one that destroyed Marysville. The suspect, also charged with possessing child pornography, is in custody pending a court hearing Monday.

'It's all in the ground'
Marysville, a picturesque village nestled in the Mystic Mountains popular with honeymooners and nature lovers, was devastated by the fires. Just a handful of buildings remain standing.

"It's all in the ground," said Ashraf Doos, owner of the destroyed Marysville Patisserie. "I just can't believe it. There is no more Marysville."

The official death count is eight people in the town. But officials say up to 100 people may have been killed there — one in five of the close-knit community's roughly 500 residents.

Police provided chaplains and counselors on the buses transporting the residents from Buxton, about seven miles from Marysville. Most were seeing it for the first time since the fire, and residents said they were mostly quiet on board, with some sobbing and even an occasional joke.

"The only time I really fell apart was when I saw Grandpa's house," said 17-year-old resident Harley Ronalds. "He passed away there in the fire. That destroyed me. I don't know how to take it."

Chief Commissioner Christine Nixon said Victoria police suspect the fire that destroyed Marysville was deliberately set, and investigators were painstakingly picking through the town collecting possible evidence.

Suspect in fire placed in protective custody
The man who was charged Friday is accused of setting a blaze known as the Churchill fire which killed at least 21 people. A magistrate banned publication of pictures or details of the suspect to protect him and his family from potential reprisals.

He was placed in protective custody and taken to a secret location in Melbourne, police said.

Authorities say 1,834 homes were destroyed in the Feb. 7 blazes. At least 181 people were killed, and officials expect that total eventually to exceed 200. Some 7,500 people are homeless or fled their homes and have not returned.

Firefighters were still working Saturday to contain about a dozen blazes, though weather conditions were favorable. Much of the work involved controlled burning, and the sky over parts of the disaster zone was still filled with acrid smoke.

Residents who lost their homes expressed their anger at anyone who might have ignited the fires.

Image: Marysville, Australia
This photo, taken Friday, shows the utter devastation in the Australian village of Marysville, which was scorched by a massive wildfire.
Gavin Wigginton, whose home was destroyed, said, "If this person is not insane, then I think he should be in jail for a very long time."

The man faces a maximum penalty of 25 years in prison for the deadly arson charge and up to 15 years on the second arson charge. Five years in prison is the maximum penalty for possessing child pornography.

Experts say arson can be hard to prove. Physical evidence usually goes up in smoke or is taken away by arsonists, said Thomas Fee, a former president of the U.S. International Association of Arson Investigators.

Even more difficult to prove is murder by arson. Wildfires often join one another, making it tough to link a fire set by an arsonist with the blaze that eventually kills people, said arson expert Damon Muller.

The United States announced it was sending 29 experienced firefighters to Australia to help extinguish the blazes. That was in addition to 31 already promised, as well as logistics and emergency crews.

"They have helped us many times to battle wildfires in the West, and we are eager to demonstrate our gratitude and assist them at this critical time," U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced. Australia and the United States signed a mutual assistance agreement in 2001 and have often sent each other firefighters to help with the worst blazes.

More on Australia   |  Wildfires

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