Australians stunned by forest fire mayhem - 128 dead (Lead)

February 9th, 2009 - 12:43 pm ICT by IANS  

Sydney, Feb 9 (DPA) The death toll in Australia’s worst-ever forest fires was set to soar Monday as burnt out cars and smouldering logs were shunted aside and rescuers broke through to villages cut off by the inferno.
Authorities in the south coast city of Melbourne say 128 are confirmed dead but hold grave fears for many others.

Among the more than 4,000 homeless are people like Ronny Macpherson, left with only the clothes he was wearing and his Jack Russell dog Missy.

“It just kept going and going, nothing stopped it, whether it was a dead bush or a live tree, it just went through it,” he told national broadcaster ABC. “I got out, I got my dog out, and that was it.”

Saturday’s inferno was the worst in the nation’s history, surpassing the Black Friday blaze in 1939 that claimed 71 lives and 1983’s Ash Wednesday that killed 75.

At least 750 houses have been lost, 330,000 hectares of forest blackened and whole towns obliterated. The popular mountain resorts of Kinglake and Marysville, 100 km north-east of Melbourne, have barely any buildings left standing.

Traumatised survivors in Kinglake, where 550 houses were razed, tell of having only minutes to prepare for the wall of flames that barrelled down the main street and caught people trying to escape in their cars.

Danielle Marshall, speaking from a community centre set up to house the homeless, told local radio that her car convoy got through but others didn’t.

“It was a split-second decision,” she said. “Everything was on fire. We had to drive through fire, but we weren’t going to leave the kids there.”

Melbourne, Australia’s second-biggest city, recorded its hottest day Saturday, with the temperature above 46 degrees Celsius.

Police suspect the arsonists that light fires in national parks every southern hemisphere summer took advantage of the tinderbox conditions to set the perfect firestorms. They have cordoned off some areas and declared them crime scenes.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd described the work of arsonists as akin to mass murder that should be prosecuted as such.

“What do you say about anyone like that?” he said. “There are no words to describe it other than mass murder.”

Fire brigade deputy chief Steve Warrington, speaking after finding four people incinerated in a car in the township of Churchill, said the hunt was on for arsonists.

“We know we do have someone who is lighting fires in this community,” he said.

Other firefighters reported that fires they had put out had reignited - and that they suspected arsonists.

Additional fire brigades are pouring in from around the country, and there have been offers of assistance from New Zealand and Britain.

Australia has tens of thousands of volunteer firefighters that are backed by hundreds of water-bombing aircraft.

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