Police detain two as government considers fire alert plan

The Australian federal government said today it will clear away hurdles that have stalled a nationwide fire alert telephone system, after thousands of people were caught off-guard by the deadliest wildfires in the country’s history.

The Australian federal government said today it will clear away hurdles that have stalled a nationwide fire alert telephone system, after thousands of people were caught off-guard by the deadliest wildfires in the country’s history.

Privacy laws and bickering between state officials over funding had snarled the plan for years, The Australian newspaper reported today.

But there is a new urgency after the weekend blazes in Victoria state killed at least 181 people. Officials said the death toll could exceed 200.

Police detained two suspects today after they were reported acting suspiciously in an area burned out by last weekend’s fires, some of which authorities suspect were set by arsonists.

But it was unclear if authorities suspected them of setting fires, or of some other wrongdoing after the fires started.

Detectives responding to a tip found the men near Yea, which is about 12 miles north of Marysville, a town utterly wrecked by an inferno on Saturday and where officials say up to 100 people were killed.

“We’ve picked them up and it will now take us a little bit of time just to work through and establish what’s been going on,” Deputy Police Commissioner Simon Overland told Australian Broadcasting Corp radio.

Attorney General Robert McClelland said a plan for a telephone fire alert system had been before the government since 2004, but that state governments had not endorsed it and that changes were required to federal privacy laws that bar private numbers from being handed out to emergency services.

Mr McClelland said he backs sending a barrage of automated text messages to all phones in a targeted area.

Australia’s largest telecommunications company, Telstra Corp said it could install such a system but had been blocked by the federal privacy laws, said managing director David Quilty.

The government “is now looking to move expeditiously” to change those rules, Mr Quilty told ABC radio.

Mr McClelland said Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s government had “driven this issue hard” since it was elected in 2007, he said.

“Clearly a warning system would be useful,” he said.

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