Home News Australian wildfires rage on after killing 131

Australian wildfires rage on after killing 131

Published on 09/02/2009

WHITTLESEA – Troops and firefighters battled raging Australian wildfires Monday that have left at least 131 people dead amid a landscape of charred homes, bodies and devastated communities.

The wildfires have become the deadliest in Australia’s history, destroying entire towns and wiping out families.

Amid the heartache there was also anger as police revealed they suspected some of the fires were started by arsonists, whom Prime Minister Kevin Rudd accused of "mass murder".

"This is of a level of horror that few of us anticipated," he said, later choking up with emotion as he recounted the messages of support that have arrived from around the world.

Parliament suspended 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 have transfixed the nation while images of the towering flames dominate television and newspapers.

Huddled under a dampened blanket in a puddle in a creek, as Australia’s deadly bushfires roared over her head "like a jet engine," Sonja Parkinson was convinced she and infant son Sam would die.

Instead, the flimsy shelter saved them from the inferno that claimed at least 32 lives in their town of Kinglake, one of the many compelling stories to emerge from the country’s worst fire disaster.

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

Thirty-one fires were still burning in the southeastern state of Victoria, where all the deaths occurred, and nervous communities were on alert as the flames burnt all in their path at the whim of the winds.

They have swept through some 3,000 square kilometres (1,200 square miles) fed by tinder-box conditions after a prolonged heatwave.

A number of the smouldering ruins are now surrounded by crime scene tape as police probe whether arsonists were to blame.

"What do you say about anyone like that, there are no words to describe it other than mass murder," Rudd said.

One picturesque hamlet, which became an emblem of the fires when aerial pictures showed it razed to the ground, was declared a crime scene for suspected arson.

Police blocked cars from driving into Marysville in northeast Victoria, saying there were still bodies in the streets and the whole town was a crime scene, the national AAP news agency said.

In a home in the worst-hit town of Kinglake, north of the state capital Melbourne, 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 newspaper reported.

With Kinglake flattened, residents in the town of Yackandandah in Victoria’s northeast were nervously waiting to see if they would suffer the same fate.

"People are nervous, we are at the mercy of the weather," said businessman James Lacey. "If we get southerly winds we might be in trouble."

Thousands of farm animals, pets and wild creatures have also perished in the flames. One stark image showed a farmer shooting a badly burnt sheep with a rifle.

Glenda Elliott, who runs the Kangaloola Wildlife Shelter near Yackandandah, said she was ready to pack the scores of native animals she cares for onto her pick-up truck and take them down a mine shaft as she did during a 2003 fire.

"We are on high alert, the fires are probably only five kilometres away," she told the national AAP news agency.

But for other people, it was already too late.

People died in their cars as they sought to escape the flames, smouldering wrecks on roads testimony to failed attempts to flee, while others were burnt to death in their homes.

Thousands of survivors are now jamming community halls, schools and other makeshift accommodation.

In neighbouring New South Wales state, two people have been charged with arson – a 31-year-old man and a 15-year-old boy.

Neither of the fires they are accused of starting killed anybody, but police suspect arsonists were also behind some of the major fires in Victoria.

State police commissioner Christine Nixon said all bushfire areas will be treated as crime scenes, saying there was "good evidence" to believe some of the fires were deliberately lit.

[AFP / Expatica]