Australian wildfire death toll at 108: officials

108 killed in Australia's worst wildfires AFP – A tree burns close to a burnt out house at Kinglake, north of Melbourne.(AFP/William West)

KINGLAKE, Australia (AFP) – The death toll from the worst wildfires in Australia’s history — described by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd as “hell in all its fury” — has risen to 108, authorities said Monday.

Firefighters in the southeast of the country were battling dozens of blazes amid fears the death toll could rise still further, as emergency crews sifted through the charred remains of entire towns razed in the inferno.

People died in their cars as they attempted to escape the fast-advancing flames — smouldering wrecks on roads outside this town told of failed attempts to flee — while others were burnt to death in their homes.

Police and a spokesman for the Department of Sustainability and Environment in Victoria state put the death toll at 108 early Monday, the Australian Associated Press (AAP) reported.

But there were fears it could rise yet as medics treated badly burned and emergency crews made it through to more than 700 houses destroyed by the fires, some of which have been blamed on arsonists.

Thousands of survivors jammed community halls, schools and other makeshift accommodation as troops and firefighters battled to control huge blazes fed by tinder-box conditions after a once-in-a-century heatwave.

The devastating fires have affected around 3,000 square kilometres (1,200 square miles) — an area larger than Luxembourg or nearly three times the size of Hong Kong.

“Hell in all its fury has visited the good people of Victoria in the last 24 hours. Many good people lie dead, many injured,” Rudd told reporters Sunday, deploying army units to help 3,000 firefighters battling the flames.

The number of dead has risen steadily as rescue crews reach townships that bore the brunt of the most intense firestorm northwest of Melbourne, which survivors likened to a nuclear bomb explosion.

The death toll has far surpassed the 75 killed in wildfires in Victoria and neighbouring South Australia in 1983.

The latest fires in Australia’s southeast flared on Saturday, fanned by high winds after a heatwave sent temperatures soaring to 46 degrees Celsius (115 Fahrenheit), and continued to burn out of control Sunday.

They wiped out the pretty resort village of Marysville and largely destroyed the town of Kinglake, north of Melbourne, with houses, shops, petrol stations and schools razed to the ground.

Marie Jones said she was staying at a friend’s house in Kinglake, where at least 18 people perished, when a badly burnt man arrived with his infant daughter saying his wife and other child had been killed.

“He was so badly burnt,” she told the Melbourne Age’s website.

“He had skin hanging off him everywhere and his little girl was burnt, but not as badly as her dad, and he just came down and he said ‘Look, I’ve lost my wife, I’ve lost my other kid, I just need you to save (my daughter)’.”

An AFP photographer who made it into Kinglake described a road strewn with wrecked cars telling of desperate, failed attempts to escape.

The cars appeared to have crashed into each other or into trees as towering flames put an end to their desperate flight from the town.

Some did not even make it onto the road, said Victoria Harvey, a resident waiting at a roadblock to be allowed to return to the site of her destroyed home.

She told reporters of a local businessman who lost two of his children as the family tried to flee.

“He apparently went to put his kids in the car, put them in, turned around to go grab something from the house, then his car was on fire with his kids in it and they burnt,” she said.

In Kinglake, scores of homes were levelled along with shops and the school. The smouldering ruins of the town were deserted except for police and forensic experts.

Police Deputy Commissioner Kieran Walshe said there was no doubt that arsonists were behind some of the fires.

“Some of these fires have started in localities that could only be by hand, it could not be natural causes,” he said.

Police have warned that arsonists could face murder charges.

Meanwhile, in Queensland, in the northeast of the country, where some towns have been inundated for a week by cyclonic rains, two people were missing after their car was swept away — and a crocodile is believed to have taken a boy.

“The boy was walking with his seven-year-old brother earlier this morning when he followed his dog into floodwaters,” police said in a statement.

“He disappeared in the water and his brother saw a large crocodile in the vicinity of his disappearance.”

Much of the state has been declared a disaster zone, with an area of more than a million square kilometres (386,100 square miles) and 3,000 homes affected by floods.

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