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Australian bushfires kill 108, dozens more missing

AUSTRALIA'S deadliest bushfire crisis eased today, but the death toll kept rising with at least 108 people killed as families searched for scores of missing in the twisted, charred ruins.

Media reported the death toll could reach 170 as authorities searched hundreds of razed homes some 80 km (50 miles) north of the country's second biggest city of Melbourne.

Police believe some of the fires were deliberately lit. "There are no words to describe it other than mass murder," Prime Minister Kevin Rudd told local television.

"These numbers (dead) are numbing ... and I fear they will rise further," he added.

A massive bushfire tore through several small towns near Melbourne on Saturday night destroying everything in its path. Many people died in cars trying to flee the inferno, others were killed huddled in their homes, yet some miraculously escaped by diving into pools and farm reservoirs or hiding in their cellar.

"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," survivor Chris Harvey told the local media.

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

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 for blazes to take hold.

The fire tragedy and major floods in the north, where half of Queensland state is under water, will put pressure on Rudd who is is due to deliver a new climate policy in May. Green politicians are citing the extreme weather to back a tougher climate policy.

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


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

While cooler, less windy, conditions helped firefighters, 10 major fires remained out of control in Victoria.

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.

Fire officials in Australia advised people to stay and defend homes, as most homes were damaged not by the actual firefront but burning embers blown onto roofs. Evacuation was a last resort as houses offered the best protection, the officials said, but if residents wished to leave they should evacuate well before a firefront nears.

"We really do need to look at our early warning systems, whether those ... are adequate and whether they can be enhanced on a national basis," said Attorney-General Robert McClelland.

As dawn broke in the town of Whittlesea, near Kinglake where most people died, 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 young children, aged 6, 13 and 15, since an inferno swept through Kinglake.

"If they let me up the mountain I know where to go (to try and find them)," Gents sobbed. Authorities sealed off Kinglake as 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 their missing family and friends to contact them.

Rudd said it would take years to rebuild the devastated rural towns and has announced a A$10 million ($6.8 million) aid package.

The previous worst bushfire tragedy in Australia was in 1983 when 75 people were killed. The fires at the weekend were also the worst natural disaster in Australia in 110 years. In 1899, Cyclone Mahina struck Australia's northern Cape York, killing more than 400.


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