Australia's deadliest bushfire, 76 dead


  • World
  • Sunday, 08 Feb 2009

WANDONG, Australia (Reuters) - Australia's deadliest bushfire killed 76 people, as the inferno engulfed entire towns, destroying hundreds of homes and killing people as they tried to flee in cars or huddled in their homes, police said on Sunday.

The fire storm tore through several rural towns north of Melbourne on Saturday night destroying everything in its path, forcing one family to dive into a farm reservoir to survive and others to cower in a community shed while firefighters stood between them and a wall of flames.

"It rained fire," said one survivor, showing his singed shirt. "We hid in the olive grove and watched our house burn."

The remains of charred cars littered the smoldering towns on Sunday, some crumbled heaps after crashing into each other as their drivers frantically tried to escape the fire.

Police said the toll could continue to rise as they search the ruins of the wild fires and with 20 people with serious burns in hospital. Thousands of firefighters were still battling scores of fires in Victoria and New South Wales state on Sunday night.

"We are just picking them up (bodies) as we go through," a police spokesman told Reuters.

The previous worst bushfire tragedy was in 1983 when 75 people were killed in the "Ash Wednesday" fires.

The government put the army on standby and set up emergency relief funds, but also faced some pressure from Greens lawmakers who have been urging it to stiffen its climate-change policies to reduce the risk of more such summer disasters.

Survivors said the Victorian inferno reached four storeys high and raced across the land like speeding trains.

"It went through like a bullet," Darren Webb-Johnson, a resident of the small rural town of Kinglake, told Sky TV.

"The service station went, the take-away store across the road went, cylinders (exploded) left, right and centre, and 80 percent of the town burnt down to the ground."

State broadcaster ABC showed pictures of a small town, Marysville, razed to the ground.

"Hell and its fury have visited the good people of Victoria," said Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, visiting the burnt-out region. "The nation grieves with Victoria."

"Many good people now lie dead. Many others lie injured."

The main fires are around towns about 80 km (50 miles) north of Melbourne, hitting both semi-urban and rural areas.

Firefighters say more than 700 homes have been destroyed in the fires across Victoria state so far this weekend, the vast majority in the worst-affected areas north of Melbourne.

Wildfires are a natural annual event in Australia, but this year a combination of scorching weather, drought and tinder-dry bush has created prime conditions for blazes to take hold -- and also raised pressure on the government's climate-change policy.

DAZED SURVIVORS

Greens leader Bob Brown, who has condemned the government's recently announced plan to curb greenhouse gas emissions as ineffectual, said summer fires would only worsen unless Australia and other nations showed more leadership on climate change.

Dazed survivors, wrapped in blankets, wandered through the charred remains on Sunday, some crying, not knowing whether friends of family had survived.

At the town of Wandong, about 50 km (30 miles) north of Melbourne, one survivor said he had found the body of a friend in the laundry of a burnt-out house.

"Another 20 seconds and we were gone. We lost our dogs. There have been a lot of dead people. My next door neighbour didn't make it," said one survivor.

The main Victorian bushfire had burnt some 3,000 hectares of mainly national park on Saturday when temperatures soared close to 50 degrees Celcius (122 Fahrenheit). Within hours, the fire had burnt some 30,000 hectares after the wind changed direction.

Overall, fires were still burning across about 2,000 square km (770 sq miles) in areas north of Melbourne in Sunday, with a few towns still under threat, the ABC said on its website.

(Additional reporting by Mark Bendeich and Michael Perry)

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