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Fourteen killed in Australian wildfires: police

Fourteen people died in wildfires sweeping through southeastern Australia during a heatwave today and arsonists are suspected of starting several of the blazes, police said.

world Updated: Feb 07, 2009 18:21 IST

Fourteen people died in wildfires sweeping through southeastern Australia during a heatwave today and arsonists are suspected of starting several of the blazes, police said.

"This is an absolute tragedy for (Victoria) state and we believe the figure may even get worse," said deputy police commissioner Kieran Walshe.

"We base that on the fact we're only just getting into these areas now to search buildings and properties.

"These have been very very significant fires ... the figure could get into the 40s," he reporters.

All those killed were caught up in a raging blaze northwest of Australia's second-biggest city of Melbourne, Walshe said, with six believed to have died in one car trapped in the fire.

Arsonists were believed to be responsible for some of the nine major fires raging through Victoria state.

"We suspect a number of the fires have been deliberately lit," Walshe said.

The most deadly blaze started some 80 kilometres (50 miles) north of Melbourne in East Kilmore and swept 30 kilometres eastwards through several small townships including Wandong, Strathewen and Clonbinane to Kinglake.

"The whole township is pretty much on fire," Kinglake resident Peter Mitchell told ABC Radio.

"There was no time to do anything ... it came through in minutes. There'll be a massive loss of houses ... there'll be a lot of us homeless.

"All those who have made it into town will be fine. The others will be sheltering and working on their fire plans, God help them."

Mitchell said he was sheltering with around 200 residents in the local pub and that no fire trucks could get into the town.

At least 100 homes were destroyed by the fires, the environment department said.

The deadliest bushfires in Australia's history killed 47 people in Victoria and 28 in neighbouring South Australia in 1983.