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Australia wildfires swallow whole towns; toll hits 130

A tree burns Sunday near a charred house at Kinglake, north of Melbourne. Residents said the fire hit with barely any notice. “I could see it coming … it sounded like a train,” one woman said.

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A tree burns Sunday near a charred house at Kinglake, north of Melbourne. Residents said the fire hit with barely any notice. “I could see it coming … it sounded like a train,” one woman said.

WHITTLESEA, Australia — The deadliest wildfires in Australia's history burned people in their homes and cars and wiped out entire towns, officials discovered Sunday as they reached farther into the fire zone. The death toll rose to 130 today.

Blazes have been burning for weeks in the southeastern state of Victoria but turned deadly Saturday when searing temperatures and wind blasts created a firestorm that swept across a swath of the region. A long-running drought in the south — the worst in a century — had left forests extra dry, and Saturday's fire conditions were said to be the worst ever in Australia.

Police declared crime scenes today in the towns destroyed by wildfire; officials suspect some of the more than 400 fires were set.

"What do you say about anyone like that?" Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said. "There's no words to describe it, other than it's mass murder."

At least 750 homes were destroyed. Officials said the tolls of human life and property would almost certainly rise.

Police sealed off at least two towns — Marysville and Kinglake — where dozens of deaths occurred — setting up roadside checkpoints and controlling access to the area.

Victoria Police Commissioner Christine Nixon said fire investigators were on the ground at one fire site, in Churchill, east of Melbourne, and would go to others.

Kinglake is "where the most deaths are, but wherever a death has occurred we investigate that as a crime," Nixon told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.

Anyone found guilty of lighting a wildfire that causes death faces 25 years in prison in Victoria.

From the air, the landscape was blackened as far as the eye could see. Entire forests were reduced to leafless, charred trunks, farmland to ashes. The Victoria Country Fire Service said some 850 square miles were burned out.

Only five houses were left standing out of about 40 in one neighborhood of the hard-hit Kinglake district. Street after street was lined by smoldering wrecks of homes, roofs collapsed inward, iron roof sheets twisted from the heat. The burned-out hulks of cars dotted roads.

On Sunday, temperatures in the area dropped to about 77 degrees, but along with cooler conditions came wind changes that officials said could push fires in unpredictable directions.

Police and fire officials reached Marysville and several hamlets in the Kinglake district, both about 50 miles north of Melbourne, on Sunday and found the area devastated.

At Marysville, a picturesque hilly district that attracts hikers and tourists and is home to about 800 people, up to 90 percent of buildings were in ruins, witnesses said. Police said two people died there.

"Marysville is no more," Senior Constable Brian Cross said.

At least 29 of the deaths were from the Kinglake area. Residents in hard-hit areas said the fires were moving so fast that they hit without warning. At least 80 people were hospitalized with burns.

Australia wildfires swallow whole towns; toll hits 130 02/08/09 [Last modified: Monday, February 9, 2009 7:24am]
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