Australian bushfires kill 171

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The Independent Online

Weary firefighters and rescuers pulled the remains of dozens of people from charred buildings today as the toll from Australia's deadliest bushfires rose to 171.

"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 the town of Kinglake, where most people were killed.

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

Police believe some of the fires, which razed rural towns near the country's second biggest city, Melbourne, were deliberately lit and declared one devastated town a crime scene.

"There are no words to describe it other than mass murder," Prime Minister Kevin Rudd earlier told local television. "These numbers (of dead) are numbing."

The bushfires are the country's worst natural disaster in more than a century, and will put pressure on Rudd to deliver a broad new climate policy.

One massive bushfire tore through several towns in the southern state of Victoria on Saturday night, destroying everything in its path. Many people died in cars trying to flee and others were killed huddled in their homes, yet some escaped by jumping into swimming pools or farm reservoirs.

The inferno was as tall as a four-storey building at one stage and was sparking spot fires 40 km (25 miles) ahead of itself as the strong winds blew hot embers in its path.

"It's going to look like Hiroshima, I tell you. It's going to look like a nuclear bomb. There are animals dead all over the road," said Harvey.

More than 750 houses were destroyed and some 78 people, with serious burns and injuries, are in hospital.

Many patients had burns to more than 30 percent of their bodies and some injuries were worse than the Bali bombings in 2002, said one doctor at a hospital emergency department.

In Canberra, lawmakers fought back tears as they suspended parliament for the day after expressing condolences to the victims on behalf of the stunned nation.

"It is the beauty and the wonder of our country," National Party leader Warren Truss said. "It can also be harsh and cruel. How can these idyllic landscapes also become killing fields?"

Wildfires are a natural annual event in Australia, but this year a combination of scorching weather, drought and tinder-dry bush has created prime conditions.

The fires, and major floods in Queensland state in the north, will put pressure on Rudd, who is due to deliver a new climate policy in May. Green politicians are citing the extreme weather to back a tougher climate policy. [ID:nSP292660]

Adding to the nation's grief, authorities in northern Queensland searched unsuccessfully for a five-year-old boy who they believe was killed by a crocodile when he chased his pet dog into the flooded Daintree River.

Scientists say Australia, with its harsh environment, is set to be one of the nations most affected by climate change.

"Continued increases in greenhouse gases will lead to further warming and drier conditions in southern Australia, so the (fire) risks are likely to slightly worsen," said Kevin Hennessy at the Commonwealth Scientific & Industrial Research Centre (CSIRO).

The Victorian bushfire tragedy is the worst natural disaster in Australia in 110 years. In 1899, Cyclone Mahina struck Australia's northern Cape York, killing more than 400.

Thousands of firefighters continued to battle the main fires and scores of other blazes across Victoria on Monday, as well as fires in neighbouring New South Wales state.

While cooler, calmer conditions helped firefighters, 10 major fires remained out of control in Victoria. But the week-long heatwave that triggered the inferno was over.

The fires burnt out more than 330,000 ha (815,000 acres) of mostly bushland in Victoria, but a number of vineyards in the Yarra Valley were also destroyed. The Insurance Council of Australia said it was too early to estimate the bill.

The small town of Marysville was sealed off by police as forensic scientists searched through the rubble for evidence.

As dawn broke in the town of Whittlesea, near Kinglake, shocked residents wandered the streets, some crying, searching for loved ones still missing.

"The last anyone saw of them, the kids were running in the house, they were blocked in the house," cried Sam Gents, who had not heard from his wife Tina and three children, aged 6, 13 and 15, since the fire swept through Kinglake.

"If they let me up the mountain I know where to go (to try and find them)," Gents sobbed. Police sealed off Kinglake, where at least 35 died, because bodies were still being recovered.

Handwritten notes pinned to a board in the Whittlesea evacuation centre told the same sad story, with desperate pleas from people for missing family and friends to contact them.

Rudd said it would take years to rebuild the devastated towns and has announced a A$10 million ($6.8 million) aid package. He has also called in the army to help erect emergency shelter.

The previous worst bushfire tragedy in Australia was in 1983, when 75 people were killed.