At least 25 killed as bushfires scorch drought-hit Australia

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Twenty-five people have been killed by bushfires raging out of control in south-eastern Australia yesterday, and police fear the final death toll could be more than 40.

Some were killed in their cars as they fled the advancing flames in Victoria, having ignored earlier warnings to evacuate their homes. Six people died in one car, and at least 100 houses have been destroyed by dozens of fires fuelled by scorching temperatures and gale-force winds.

Blazes were reported in three states, but Victoria – where temperatures reached 47.9C yesterday – was the worst affected. All the confirmed deaths were in the north of the state, with emergency services unable to reach many areas because of the heat.

Amid fears that today could bring further deaths, Victoria's state Premier, John Brumby, described the fires as "a terrible tragedy".

A heatwave in southern Australia, combined with drought and tinder-dry bushland, has created the deadliest conditions in living memory. The country's worst bushfires occurred in 1983, when 75 people were killed in Victoria on what became known as "Ash Wednesday".

In the township of Kinglake, to the north-west of Melbourne, more than 200 people took refuge in the local pub. "The whole township is pretty much on fire," one resident, Peter Mitchell, told ABC radio. "There was no time to do anything. It came through in minutes."

Thousands of firefighters have been trying to contain the blazes, while aircraft dropped water bombs. In New South Wales and South Australia, fires were largely under control or burning away from residential areas, but the authorities feared they could spread if winds pick up. "These fires are going to take days and days to get under control," said one fire service official in Victoria.

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