The Heat Is Online

Australian Wildfires Kill At Least 171 People

Australian fire zone a crime scene


Death toll rises to at least 171; angry PM describes fires as 'mass murder' news services, Feb. 9, 2009


WHITTLESEA, Australia - Police declared incinerated towns crime scenes Monday, and the prime minister spoke of "mass murder" after investigators said arsonists may have set some of Australia's worst wildfires in history. A police official told Reuters that the death toll had risen to 171.


There were no quick answers, but officials said panic and the freight-train speed of the fire front-- driven by 60 mph winds and temperatures as high as 117 degrees Fahrenheit -- probably accounted for the unusually high toll.


Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, visibly upset during a television interview, reflected the country's disgust at the idea that arsonists may have set some of the 400 fires that devastated Victoria state, or helped them jump containment lines.


'There's no words to describe it'


"What do you say about anyone like that?" Rudd said. "There's no words to describe it, other than it's mass murder."


More than one dozen fires still burned uncontrollably across the state, though conditions were much cooler than on Saturday.

Evidence of heart-wrenching loss abounded. From the air, the landscape was blackened as far as the eye could see. In at least one town, bodies still lay in the streets. Entire forests were reduced to leafless, charred trunks, farmland to ashes. The Victoria Country

Fire Service said some 850 square miles were burned out.


At Kinglake, a body covered by a white sheet lay in a yard where every tree, blade of grass and the ground was blackened. Elsewhere in the town, the burned-out hulks of four cars were clustered haphazardly together after an apparent collision. Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio reported a car in a small reservoir, the driver apparently steering there in desperation.


"Everybody's gone. Everybody's gone. Everybody. Their houses are gone. They're all dead in the houses there. Everybody's dead," cried survivor Christopher Harvey as he walked through Kinglake.


A Victoria state police spokesman told Reuters by telephone late Monday the toll had risen to 171 from about 135 hours earlier. He said the toll would almost certainly rise further.


"What we've seen, I think, is that people didn't have enough time, in some cases," Victoria Police Commissioner Christine Nixon told a news conference. "We're finding (bodies) on the side of roads, in cars that crashed."


Tales of survival


But there were also extraordinary tales of survival.

One man leapt into his pool to escape the flames as they roared over his house, leaving it unscarred but razing his neighbor's. Another woman sheltered with her children in a wombat burrow as the worst of the fire passed.


Mark Strubing sheltered in a drainage pipe as his property, outside Kinglake, burned.


"We jumped in the car and we were only literally just able to outrun this fire. It was traveling as fast as the wind," Strubing told Nine Network television news.


He said he and a companion rolled around in the water at the bottom to wet their clothing as the flames started licking the pipe: "How we didn't burn I don't know."


Elsewhere in Kinglake, Jack Barber fled just ahead of the flames with his wife and a neighbor, driving in two cars packed with birth certificates, insurance documents, two cats, four kittens and a dog. "We had a fire plan," he said Monday. "The plan was to get the hell out of there before the flames came."


Their escape route blocked by downed power lines and a tree, they took shelter first at a school, then  when that burned  in an exposed cricket ground ringed by trees, where they found five others.


"All around us was 100-foot flames ringing the oval, and we ran where the wind wasn't. It was swirling all over the place," Barber said. "For three hours, we dodged the wind."


Wind moved quickly, changed direction


The wind surged and changed direction quickly time and again on Saturday, fanning the blazes and making their direction utterly unpredictable from minute to minute. Local media had been issuing warnings in the days leading up to the weekend, but many people guarding their homes with backyard hoses would have been outside when the wind changed, and thus could have missed the new warnings.


Jim Andrews, senior meteorologist at, said the combination of record high heat, high winds, gusts and low humidity created a perfect storm scenario for the fires. "I cannot fathom in my mind anything more, hellish, firewise," he said.


"Last Saturday we had the most intense fire weather conditions we have had in forecast history," David Packham, a research fellow in climatology at the School of Geography & Environmental Science at Melbourne's Monash University, said in an e-mail to journalists on Monday. He said the heat and a recent lack of rain made it clear days before the weekend that "conditions were in place for a disaster to occur."


At least 750 homes were destroyed Saturday, the Victoria Country Fire Service said.


Officials said both the tolls of human life and property would almost certainly rise as they reached deeper into the disaster zone, and forecasters said temperatures would rise again later in the week, posing a risk of further flare-ups.


Police Commissioner Nixon said investigators had strong suspicions that at least one of the deadly blazes  known as the Churchill fire after a ruined town  was deliberately set. And it could not be ruled out for other fires. She cautioned against jumping to conclusions.


The country's top law officer, Attorney General Robert McClelland, said people found to have deliberately set fires could face murder charges. Murder can carry a life sentence.


Police sealed off Maryville, a town destroyed by another fire, with checkpoints, telling residents who fled and news crews they could not enter because there were still bodies in the streets. Armed officers moved through the shattered landscape taking notes, pool news photographs showed.


John Handmer, a wildfire safety expert at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, said research had shown that people in the path of a blaze must get out early or stay inside until the worst has past.


"Fleeing at the last moment is the worst possible option," he said. "Sadly, this message does not seem to have been sufficiently heeded this weekend with truly awful consequences in Victoria."


Even if a house is set ablaze, it will burn more slowly and with less intensity than a wildfire and residents have a better chance of escape, he said.


Victoria state Premier John Brumby on Monday announced a commission would be held to examine all aspects of the fires, including warning policies.


"I think our policy has served us well in what I call normal conditions. These were unbelievable circumstances," Brumby said on Australian Broadcasting Corp. television.


Blazes have been burning for weeks across several states in southern Australia. A long-running drought in the south  the worst in a century  had left forests extra dry and Saturday's fire conditions in Victoria were said to be the worst ever in Australia.


In New South Wales state on Monday, a 31-year-old man appeared in court charged with arson in connection with a wildfire that burned north of Sydney over the weekend. No loss of life was reported there. He faces up to 10 years in prison.


The country's deadliest fires before the current spate killed 75 people in 1983. In 2006, nine people died on South Australia's Eyre Peninsula.


The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.



108 killed in Australian wildfires


Witnesses see trees exploding, skies raining ash as temperatures hit 117


The Associated Press, Feb. 8, 2009


HEALESVILLE, Australia - Entire towns have been razed by wildfires raging through southeastern Australia, burning people in their homes and cars in the deadliest blaze in the country's history. The number of dead Monday stood at 108, a grim toll that rose almost by the hour as officials reached further into the fire zone.


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


"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 lit, "There are no words to describe it other than mass murder," he said on Nine Network television.


Skies rained ash


The skies rained ash and trees exploded in the inferno, witnesses said, as temperatures of up 117 F (47 C) combined with blasting winds to create furnace-like conditions.


The town of Marysville and several hamlets in the Kinglake district, both about 50 miles (100 kilometers) north of Melbourne, were utterly devastated.


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 told the AP as he manned a checkpoint Sunday 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 "like nothing was going on" until they were suddenly 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."


Smoldering homes


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 some 850 square

miles (2,200 square kilometers) 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."


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.


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


Exhausted firefighters

Thousands of exhausted volunteer firefighters were battling about 30 uncontrolled fires Sunday 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.


Residents were repeatedly advised on radio and television announcements to initiate their so-called "fire plan"  whether it be staying in their homes to battle the flames 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.


Rudd announced immediate emergency aid of 10 million Australian dollars ($7 million), and government officials said the army would be deployed to help fight the fires and clean up the debris.


Victoria Department of Sustainability and Environment spokesman Geoff Russell said early Monday that 108 deaths had been confirmed.

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 lit or suspicious. Lightning and people using machinery near dry brush are other causes.


Victoria police Deputy Commissioner Kieran Walshe said police suspected some of the fires were set deliberately.


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.


Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.