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Australian town seared by wildfire is just 'ash and tin'

Harley Ronald, 17, tells how her grandfather died in Marysville, Australia, where residents returned to look at the devastated town on Saturday.

Associated Press

Harley Ronald, 17, tells how her grandfather died in Marysville, Australia, where residents returned to look at the devastated town on Saturday.

BUXTON, Australia — The school, the post office, the pub, the grocery store, the bakery, the gas station. All gone. So are as many as one in five of Marysville's 500 residents — killed when wildfires raced through the town a week ago.

About 200 of the town's survivors — those who could bear to look — returned Saturday on a bus tour organized by the authorities to see their community for the first time since fleeing for their lives.

"It's just ash. Ash and tin," said Simon Hudson, 42, who ran a bed-and-breakfast in Marysville.

Hudson said he felt sick to his stomach as he toured the town, which has been sealed off for almost a week. Authorities have been collecting bodies and sifting through the ruins for clues to the arson they suspect may be the cause of the blaze.

"We lost our friends, we lost our community, everything," Hudson said.

Marysville, the "Mystic Village" of tourist brochures, a haven for trekkers in the spring and a coffee stop on the way to Victoria state's ski fields during the winter, is now a crime scene.

One dozen buildings are left standing in Marysville, out of 250. Towering oak trees still line the main street, but are bare of leaves.

About 400 blazes raged across Victoria state on Feb. 7 as record temperatures and blasting winds sent firestorms racing at up to 60 mph through forests, farms and towns. They burned all before them — more than 1,500 square miles of land, more than 1,800 homes — and claimed at least 181 lives. About 7,500 people are homeless.

Firefighters were still working Saturday to contain about a dozen fires, though weather conditions were favorable. Much of the work involved controlled burning. The sky over parts of the disaster zone was still filled with acrid smoke.

The people who took the solemn tour on Saturday left from Buxton, a fire-scarred town about 7 miles north of Marysville.

They have not been allowed to return home since the fire because police are treating the entire town as a crime scene. They were not allowed off the buses, and chaplains and counselors were on board to help them cope with what they were seeing.

Police have charged one suspect with arson in connection to the statewide fires and put him in protective custody, hiding his identity to protect him from possible reprisals. The fire he is alleged to have started is not the one that destroyed Marysville, but police suspect an arsonist there, too.

Developments

Lawsuit: A law firm lodged a suit in Victoria's Supreme Court against power supplier SP Ausnet, alleging negligence for allowing an overhead power line to fall, starting a wildfire, a newspaper reported. SP Ausnet was not available to comment.

Services: Residents of towns in the fire zone gathered at church services today to pray for the dead and seek comfort from each other. The scene was repeated across the country. About 200 people attended services at Christ Church in Whittlesea, a center of relief efforts for neighboring towns such as Kinglake, where scores of people died.

Australian town seared by wildfire is just 'ash and tin' 02/14/09 [Last modified: Saturday, February 14, 2009 9:19pm]
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