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Wildfires cut a deadly path in Australia

Toll at 128 and may rise Entire towns left destroyed

Several homes and vehicles in the Kinglake district, about 50 miles north of Melbourne, were left leveled yesterday by the wildfires. At least 18 of the deaths were from the area. Several homes and vehicles in the Kinglake district, about 50 miles north of Melbourne, were left leveled yesterday by the wildfires. At least 18 of the deaths were from the area. (Rick Rycroft/Associated Press)
By Tanalee Smith
Associated Press / February 9, 2009
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HEALESVILLE, Australia - At least 128 people have been killed and entire towns razed by wildfires raging through southeastern Australia, burning people in their homes and cars in the deadliest string of brushfires in the country's history, officials said today.

Searing temperatures and wind blasts created a firestorm that swept across a swath of the state of Victoria, where at least 750 homes were destroyed and all the victims died.

The number of confirmed deaths was rising almost by the hour as officials reached farther into the fire zone.

"Hell in all its fury has visited the good people of Victoria," Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said. "It's an appalling tragedy for the nation."

If any of the deadly fires were deliberately set, "There are no words to describe it other than mass murder," Rudd said on Nine Network television.

The skies rained ash and trees exploded in the inferno, witnesses said, as temperatures of up to 117 degrees combined with blasting winds to create furnace-like conditions.

Thousands of exhausted volunteer firefighters were battling about 30 uncontrolled fires last night in Victoria, officials said, though conditions had eased considerably. It would be days before they were brought under control, even if temperatures stayed down, they said.

The town of Marysville and several hamlets in the Kinglake district, both about 50 miles north of Melbourne, were leveled.

At Marysville, a winter tourism town that was home to about 800 people, up to 90 percent of buildings were in ruins, witnesses said. Police said two people died there.

"Marysville is no more," Senior Constable Brian Cross said as he manned a checkpoint yesterday on a road leading into the town.

At least 18 of the deaths were from the Kinglake area, where residents said the fire hit with barely any notice.

Mandy Darkin said she was working at a restaurant when the staff was told to go home.

"I looked outside the window and said: 'Whoa, we are out of here. This is going to be bad,' " Darkin said. "I could see it coming. I just remember the blackness, and you could hear it - it sounded like a train."

Only five houses were left standing out of about 40 in one neighborhood that an Associated Press news crew flew over. Street after street was lined by smoldering wrecks of homes, roofs collapsed inward, iron roof sheets twisted from the heat. The burned-out hulks of cars dotted roads. A church was smoldering, only one wall with a giant cross etched in it remained standing.

Here and there, fire crews filled their trucks from ponds and sprayed down spot fires. There were no other signs of life.

From the air, the landscape was blackened as far as the eye could see. Entire forests were reduced to leafless, charred trunks, farmland to ashes. The Victoria Country Fire Service said 850 square miles were burned out.

Rudd, on a tour of the fire zone, paused to comfort a man who wept on his shoulder, telling him, "You're still here, mate."

Rudd announced immediate emergency aid of $7 million, and government officials said the army would be deployed to help fight the fires and clean up the debris.

Kieran Walshe, deputy police commissioner of Victoria, said investigators suspected some of the fires were set deliberately.

Police said they were hampered from reaching burned-out areas to confirm details of deaths and property loss. At least 80 people were hospitalized with burns. Temperatures in the area dropped to about 77 degrees yesterday, but along with cooler conditions came wind changes that can push fires in unpredictable directions.

Residents were repeatedly advised to initiate their fire plan - whether it be staying in their homes or to evacuate before the roads became too dangerous. But some of the deaths were people who were apparently caught by the fire as they fled in their cars or killed when charred tree limbs fell on their vehicles.

Australia's previous worst fires were in 1983, when blazes killed 75 people and razed more than 3,000 homes in Victoria and South Australia state during "Ash Wednesday." Seventy-one died and 650 buildings were destroyed in 1939's "Black Friday" fires.

Wildfires are common during the Australian summer. Government research shows about half of the roughly 60,000 fires each year are deliberately set or suspicious. Lightning and people using machinery near dry brush are other causes.

Dozens of fires were also burning in New South Wales state, where temperatures remained high for the third consecutive day.

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