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65 dead in Australia's worst fires in decades

Discussion in 'International Forum' started by Mfumwa, Feb 8, 2009.

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    Mfumwa JF-Expert Member

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    Feb 8, 2009
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    65 dead in Australia's worst fires in decades
    HEALESVILLE, Australia – Towering flames razed entire towns in southeastern Australia and burned fleeing residents in their cars as the death toll from the country's worst fire disaster in a quarter-century reached 65 on Sunday.

    At least 640 homes were destroyed in Saturday's inferno when searing temperatures and wind blasts produced a firestorm that swept across a swath of the country's Victoria state, where all the deaths occurred.

    "Hell in all its fury has visited the good people of Victoria in the last 24 hours," Prime Minister Kevin Rudd told reporters as he toured the fire zone on Sunday. "It's an appalling tragedy for the nation."

    Thousands of exhausted volunteer firefighters were still battling about 30 uncontrolled fires Sunday in Victoria, officials said, though conditions had eased considerably.

    Government officials said the army would be deployed to help out, and Rudd announced immediate emergency aid of 10 million Australian dollars ($7 million).

    The tragedy echoed across Australia. Leaders in other states — most of which have been struck by their own fire disasters in the past — pledged to send money and volunteer firefighters. Funds for public donations opened Sunday quickly started swelling.

    Underscoring Australia's size and its often-harsh landscape, thousands of residents of tropical northern Queensland state watched the blanket news coverage of the fires from homes soaked by floodwaters after weeks of drenching storms.

    In Victoria, witnesses described seeing trees exploding and skies raining ash on Saturday as temperatures of up 117 F (47 C) combined with blasting winds to create furnace-like conditions.

    Police said they were hampered from reaching burned-out areas to confirm details of deaths and property loss. But Victoria Police Commissioner Christine Nixon confirmed deaths at a dozen sites. The toll climbed higher in steps during the day, reaching 65 by Sunday evening and likely to rise further, said police spokeswoman Sgt. Creina O'Grady.

    Australia's deadliest fires were in 1983, when blazes killed 75 people and razed more than 3,000 homes in Victoria and South Australia.

    Police said charred bodies had been found in cars in at least two places — suggesting people were engulfed in flames as they tried to flee.

    Health Minister Daniel Andrews said 78 people were hospitalized with burns. Dr. John Coleridge of Alfred Hospital, one of the largest in the fire zone, said injuries ranged from scorches on the feet of people who fled across burning ground to life-threatening burns. At least three would probably die, he said.

    The fires were so massive NASA took satellite photographs of the smoke cloud.

    Deputy Commissioner Kieran Walshe said police suspected some of the fires were set deliberately. He predicted it would take days to get all the blazes under control.

    Victoria Country Fire Authority official Stuart Ord told Sky News some 460 square miles (1,190 square kilometers) had been burned by Sunday.

    Marysville, a former gold rush town that was home to about 800 people 80 miles (130 kilometers) north of Melbourne, was almost completely wiped out.

    "Marysville is no more," Senior Constable Brian Cross told The Associated Press as he manned a checkpoint Sunday in nearby Healesville on a road leading into the town. No deaths were reported in Marysville, but police sealed it off because they feared bodies would be found there.

    Television footage from Marysville showed a scene of utter devastation: house after house was a smoking ruin, with wooden beams in cinders, piles of blackened bricks and iron roofing sheets twisted in the heat. The police station, schoolhouse and pub were gutted. Burned-out cars littered the streets.

    Townships in the Kinglake nearby district, a normally sleepy region of farms and weekend-getaway spots where at least a dozen people died, were also ruined.

    Victoria Country Fire Service spokesman Hayden Lane said 640 houses had been confirmed destroyed — 550 in the Kinglake district — and that tally was expected to rise.

    "This is our house here — totally gone," Wayne Bannister told Sky News, standing with his wife Anita amid a tangle of blackened timber and bricks in Kinglake.

    Another man, who was not named, described to Sky battling the flames with a garden hose until he heard first his car gas tank, then a house propane gas tank, explode. He and his wife fled through a window.

    "It rained fire," he said. "We hid in our olive grove for an hour and watched our house burn."

    Residents reported the fire tearing through the region at high speed, burning everything before it.

    Temperatures in the area dropped to about 77 F (25 C) on Sunday, but along with cooler conditions came wind changes that officials said could push fires in unpredictable directions.

    Dozens of fires were also burning in New South Wales state, where temperatures remained high for the third consecutive day. Properties were not under immediate threat.

    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.
    Source: [media]http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20090208/ap_on_re_au_an/as_australia_wildfires[/media]
     
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