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Deadliest-ever Australian wildfires kill 108

The deadliest wildfires in Australia's history burned people in their homes and cars and wiped out entire towns, officials discovered Sunday as they reached farther into the fire zone. The death toll rose to 108 by early on Monday.

world Updated: Feb 09, 2009 07:56 IST

The deadliest wildfires in Australia's history burned people in their homes and cars and wiped out entire towns, officials discovered Sunday as they reached farther into the fire zone. The death toll rose to 108 by early on Monday.

Blazes have been burning for weeks in the southeastern state of Victoria but turned deadly Saturday when searing temperatures and wind blasts created a firestorm that swept across a swath of the region. A long-running drought in the south _ the worst in a century _ had left forests extra dry and Saturday's fire conditions were said to be the worst ever in Australia.

From the air, the landscape was blackened as far as the eye could see. Entire forests were reduced to leafless, charred trunks, farmland to ashes. The Victoria Country Fire Service said some 850 square miles (2,200 square kilometers) were burned out. Only five houses were left standing out of about 40 in one neighborhood of the hard-hit Kinglake district that an Associated Press news crew flew over. Street after street was lined by smoldering wrecks of homes, roofs collapsed inward, iron roof sheets twisted from the heat. The burned-out hulks of cars dotted roads. A church was smoldering, only one wall with a giant cross etched in it remained standing.

All the deaths occurred in Victoria state, where at least 750 homes were destroyed.

Police said they suspect some of the fires were set deliberately, and have declared some sites in the fire zone as crime scenes. If that is the case, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said Monday, "there are no words to describe it other than mass murder." On Sunday, temperatures in the area dropped to about 77 degrees Fahrenheit (25 degrees Celsius) but along with cooler conditions came wind changes that officials said could push fires in unpredictable directions.

Thousands of exhausted volunteer firefighters were battling about a dozen uncontrolled fires Monday in Victoria, officials said. But it would be days before they were brought under control, even if temperatures stayed down.

Residents were repeatedly advised on radio and television announcements to initiate their so-called "fire plan" _ whether it be staying in their homes to battle the flames or to evacuate before the roads became too dangerous. But some of the deaths were people who were apparently caught by the fire as they fled in their cars or killed when charred tree limbs fell on their vehicles. "It does appear that people have been taken by surprise by how fast this fire has come," Victoria police Sgt. Creina O'Grady told Australian Broadcasting Corp.

Police and fire officials reached on Sunday the town of Marysville and several hamlets in the Kinglake district, both about 50 miles (80 kilometers) north of Melbourne. They found the area utterly devastated.

At Marysville, a picturesque hilly district that attracts hikers and tourists and is home to about 800 people, up to 90 percent of buildings were in ruins, witnesses said. Police said two people died there.

"Marysville is no more," Senior Constable Brian Cross told The Associated Press as he manned a checkpoint on a road leading into the town at Healesville.

At least 29 of the deaths were from the Kinglake area. Many residents in hard hit areas said the fires were moving so fast that they hit without warning, something that could have contributed to the unusually high death toll.

But so far officials said they were at a loss to explain why so many people have died. The sheer intensity of the firestorm Saturday may have caused panic among even veterans of wildfires. Mandy Darkin said she was working at a restaurant in Kinglake "like nothing was going on" until they were suddenly told to go home.

"I looked outside the window and said: 'Whoa, we are out of here. This is going to be bad,"' Darkin said. "I could see it coming. I just remember the blackness and you could hear it, it sounded like a train."

Some fire crews in the same area filled their trucks from ponds and sprayed down spot fires. There were no other signs of life. On Sunday the prime minister, on a tour of the fire zone, paused to comfort a man who wept on his shoulder, telling him, "You're still here, mate."

When conditions were at their worst on Saturday, the skies rained ash and trees exploded in the inferno as temperatures of up 117 F (47 C) combined with blasting winds to create furnace-like conditions, witnesses said.

Police said they were hampered from reaching burned-out areas to confirm details of deaths and property loss.

Victoria Department of Sustainability and Environment spokesman Geoff Russell said early Monday that 108 deaths had been confirmed. At least 80 people were hospitalized with burns.

"Hell in all its fury has visited the good people of Victoria," Rudd said. "It's an appalling tragedy for the nation." Rudd announced immediate emergency aid of 10 million Australian dollars ($7 million), and government officials said the army would be deployed to help fight the fires and clean up the debris. Australia's worst fires before these were in 1983, when blazes killed 75 people and razed more than 3,000 homes in Victoria and South Australia state.

Wildfires are common during the Australian summer. Government research shows about half of the roughly 60,000 fires each year are deliberately lit or suspicious. Lightning and people using machinery near dry brush are other causes.

Dozens of fires were also burning in New South Wales state, where temperatures remained high for the third consecutive day. But there was no immediate threat to property.