WANDONG, Australia (Reuters) - Australia's deadliest bushfire has killed at least 84 people, some as they fled in cars or as they huddled in houses when the inferno engulfed rural towns in the country's south east, police said on Sunday.
The fire storm tore through several small towns north of Melbourne on Saturday night destroying everything in its path. One family was forced to dive into a farm reservoir to survive while others took refuge in a community shed with firefighters standing between them and a wall of flames.
A badly burnt man in the town of Kinglake, where there were many fatalities, was kept alive for six hours by being partially submerged by friends in a pool until help arrived.
"It rained fire," said one survivor, showing his singed shirt. "We hid in the olive grove and watched our house burn."
On Sunday, the remains of charred cars littered the smouldering towns, about 80 km north of Melbourne. Some vehicles had crashed into each other as their drivers frantically tried to escape the fire.
"Out there it has been hell on earth," Victoria state Premier John Brumby said in a television address.
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 will find more bodies as we gain access to different parts of the fire areas," Victoria Police Chief Commissioner Christine Nixon told a news conference.
"We have found people in cars, it looks like they have decided late to leave their premises. We have found people who have been in properties, in their paddocks. We've found others in their houses. And the sad part is that we found children."
Nixon said some of the fires may have been deliberately lit.
The previous worst bushfire tragedy was in 1983 when 75 people were killed in the "Ash Wednesday" fires.
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.
"Hell and its fury have visited the good people of Victoria," said Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who announced a A$10 million aid package. "The nation grieves with Victoria. Many good people now lie dead. Many others lie injured," said Rudd. The government also put the army on standby.
Firefighters said 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. Green lawmakers have been urging stiffer climate-change policies to reduce the risk of more such summer disasters.
Dazed survivors, wrapped in blankets, wandered through twisted and charred remains on Sunday, some crying, not knowing whether friends of family had survived.
At the town of Wandong, about 50 km 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.
(Additional reporting by Mark Bendeich and Michael Perry)