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Wildfire victims start the rebuilding

SURVIVORS who lost everything in Australia's deadly wildfires appealed for donations of work boots and shovels, as their focus shifts from grief to rebuilding.

Charities in southern Victoria state, devastated by the February 7 blazes that killed at least 208 people, have been inundated with donations from across the world ?? from jewelry and toiletries to cutlery and cars.

But as the thousands of families displaced by the blazes move out of relief centers and back onto their ruined properties, the need for food and clothing has been surpassed by a need for help re-establishing their lives.

"There's plenty of homes far away but we want to be where our kids can go to school. We want to stay close," said Marisa Pegoraro, 47, whose family narrowly escaped being burned alive inside their home in the razed town of Kinglake.

Yesterday, with five fires still burning but under control, police raised the death toll after the remains of seven other people were identified.

Officials said many of the 7,500 people left homeless by the fires were living in caravans. Others are staying with family and friends or in temporary rental homes.

"Many families are unable to return to their own destroyed properties because they are contaminated and hazardous because of unstable structures and products of combustion," said Craig Lapsley, director of Victoria's Department of Human Services emergency management branch.

The process of rebuilding lost homes is unlikely to begin for months but survivors need tools to help clear the rubble from their land and sift through the wreckage.

The St Vincent de Paul Society charity has been flooded with requests for wheelbarrows, generators and chain saws, spokeswoman Carol Taylor said.

Officials say it is too early to estimate the cost of the fires but media estimates for insurance losses and damages to crops and livestock range from A$500 million (US$329 million) to A$2 billion.

More than 300 families a day continue to visit a relief center in Whittlesea, a donation hub for surrounding towns such as Kinglake that were obliterated.

The center was piled high with boxes of food and crates of water, mountains of books and toys, stacks of linen and china. But the most coveted item was work boots, volunteer Janine Morgan said.

"Initially ... because the ground was still so hot and the ashes so deep in some places they were just such a priority," Morgan said.

Now, as families settle back onto their properties, boots are even more critical.


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