Australia fire toll 'to increase'

Australia fire toll 'to increase' International

Police believe some of the fires were started deliberately – actions which Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said amounted to “mass murder”.

Survivors have recounted how they fled walls of flames. Some people died in their cars trying to escape the fires.

Some rural towns have been almost completely destroyed.

A number of sites have been sealed off by police as possible crime scenes.

An area of 3,000 sq km (1,200 sq miles) has been affected.

Temperatures had dropped and conditions improved on Monday to help the tens of thousands of firefighters, backed by soldiers, bring the fires under control.

But there are around 30 fires still burning in Victoria state with several communities at risk, officials said.

Two other states – New South Wales and South Australia – have also been hit by blazes, but the fires there are said to be largely contained or burning away from residential areas.

‘Furnace-like heat’

Shocking stories are emerging from survivors in the worst-hit areas.

The BBC’s Nick Bryant, at a relief centre in the hamlet of Whittlesea – near the devastated town of Kinglake – said people thought they had hours when in fact they only had minutes to
escape the fast advancing flames.

Some described escaping down roads lined with burning trees, while their cars caught fire in the furnace-like heat.

Another man said he siphoned off the water from his vehicle’s radiator to try to save the life of a neighbour who had been set alight.

“Balls of fire would rain out of the sky long before we actually saw the wall of flames coming through the trees,” Christopher Barnes, of Kinglake, said.

“The sounds are incredible. I thought at the start that it was thunder and it was actually the sounds of the fire coming through the bush.”

Karen Farthing, a nurse in the emergency department of Victoria hospital, said people had been struggling to get to work because roads were blocked and trees had fallen.

“[Here] it has been very busy. We’ve been treating firemen with burns, and sadly getting lots of dead on arrivals,” she told the BBC News website.

A former Melbourne newsreader, Brian Naylor, and his wife were among those killed on Saturday when the flames took hold in the Kinglake district.

Many residents of fire-ravaged towns are now embroiled in a desperate search for friends and relatives missing since the flames tore through the tiny communities.

The bodies of people have already been found trapped in the burnt-out wreckage of cars and homes, and investigators fear more will be found when a full search of the charred
settlements can be carried out.

‘Mass murder’

Mr Rudd has announced an immediate aid package of A$10m ($7m, £4.5m) and said damaged areas would take years to rebuild.


“That’s why we have deployed the army, that’s why we will be deploying every possible resource,” he said.

Officials believe some of the weekend’s fires might have been started deliberately, an accusation Mr Rudd described as “a level of horror that few of us anticipated”.

“There are no words to describe it other than mass murder,” he said.

Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard told parliament that 7 February 2009 would be remembered “as one of the darkest days in Australia’s history”.

Australia’s head of state, Queen Elizabeth II, has spoken of her “shock and sadness” at the number of deaths, and has praised the extraordinary work of the emergency crews at the scene.

The British and New Zealand governments have both offered to help deal with the fires.

The Australian Red Cross, which has about 400 volunteers working in Victoria, has launched an appeal for donations.

Bush fires are common in Australia, but the current blazes have eclipsed the death toll from what had been the previous worst fire in 1983, when 75 people died on a day that became
known as Ash Wednesday.

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