Australian wildfires claim 131 lives, threaten to spread further

9th February 2009, Comments 0 comments

Shifting winds threatened to send the deadliest fires in Australian history beyond containment lines hacked out by thousands of firefighters, most of them exhausted volunteers who have been working for days with little rest.

Whittlesea -- Wildfires that have already claimed 131 lives threatened to engulf a dozen more Australian communities Monday, leaving a grim legacy of charred bodies, homes and shattered townships.

As troops and firefighters struggled to douse the flames, Victoria state's Country Fire Authority issued a series of alerts warning of possible flare-ups across the southeast state.

Shifting winds threatened to send the deadliest fires in Australian history beyond containment lines hacked out by thousands of firefighters, most of them exhausted volunteers who have been working for days with little rest.

The firestorm has engulfed entire towns and wiped out families, triggering both heartache and anger after police revealed some were set by arsonists.

Victorian Premier John Brumby said the fires would inevitably claim more lives as the crisis continues.

"There is a huge effort to get them under control (but) tragically we will have more deaths later this week," he told public television.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said any firebugs involved were guilty of "mass murder." "This is of a level of horror that few of us anticipated," he said, choking with emotion as he recounted the messages of support from around the world.

Britain's Queen Elizabeth sent her condolences and Australia's parliament suspended its normal business to mark what Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard called "one of the darkest days in Australia's peacetime history."

Tales of tragedy, fear and narrow escapes transfixed the nation, as images of the towering flames dominated television and newspapers.

Huddled under a damp blanket in a puddle in a creek, as the conflagration roared overhead "like a jet engine," Sonja Parkinson was convinced she and her infant son Sam would die.

Instead, their flimsy shelter saved them from the inferno that claimed at least 32 lives in their town of Kinglake.

"The two front rooms were ablaze,” she told The Australian newspaper. “I couldn't see. It was black. We went down to the creek and we hid. This little one was so brave under the blanket."

Dozens of fires were still burning in Victoria state, where all the deaths occurred, with the main threat late Monday in the east.

The fires have so far swept through 3,000 square kilometers (1,200 square miles), leaving smoldering ruins, some now surrounded by crime scene tape as police probe whether arsonists were to blame.

"There are no words to describe it other than mass murder," Rudd said.

Police described the entire town of Marysville, one of the worst hit areas, as a crime scene.

In nearby Kinglake, the charred bodies of four children were found huddled with that of an adult, believed to be a parent.

Police identified the four as children only from the size of their skulls, The Australian reported.

With Kinglake flattened, residents further east were nervously waiting to see if they would suffer the same fate as conditions worsened late Monday.

"People are nervous, we are at the mercy of the weather," said businessman James Lacey from the town of Yackandandah.

Brumby launched a review of the way authorities handle bushfires, admitting that existing advice telling people to either leave their home early or stay on and fight the flames had proved flawed.

"There were many people who had done all of the preparations, had the best fire plans in the world and tragically it didn't save them," the state premier told commercial radio.

Historical wildfires

The wildfires which are ravaging southeastern Australia are among the most deadly registered in a century and a half around the world.

They are also the most deadly fires in Australia since those on Ash Wednesday in 1983, which cost the lives of 75 people in Victoria and in the neighboring state of South Australia.

Here are some other previous wildfires:

- Greece: In July and August 2007, Greece, hit by drought and a series of heat waves, experienced an unprecedented wave of wildfires that mostly devastated the Peloponnese peninsula in the east.

In all, 77 people died over the summer due to the more than 4,500 fires that destroyed almost 270,000 hectares (667,000 acres) of forest and farmland.

- China: In May 1987, the most serious fire in China's recent history killed almost 200 people and left 50,000 homeless in the province of Heilongjiang, in the northeast on the frontier of the former Soviet Union.

In the space of one month, more than one million hectares (2.4 million acres) of which 70 percent were forests, were destroyed by the flames and three towns reduced to ashes including Xilinji with 20,000 inhabitants.

- France: In August 1949, in the Landes in southwestern France, 82 rescue workers were killed in the worst fire the country has known, caused by a cigarette that was not put out properly.

The casualties -- firemen, volunteers and 23 soldiers -- were caught up in a cloud of fire caused by a brutal change in the direction and intensity of wind. That summer fires caused by an exceptional drought had already devastated thousands of hectares (acres) in the Landes.

- United States: The most deadly forest fire appears to be that of October 1871, at Peshtigo in the US state of Wisconsin, which left between 800 and 1,200 dead, according to estimates.

The fire, which broke out in the forest village of 1,700 inhabitants, ravaged 16 other villages, spread over 500,000 hectares (1.2 million acres).

William West/AFP/Expatica

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