Australia — Australian bushfires killed at least 14 people in the southern state of Victoria on Saturday as a heatwave sparked more than 40 blazes across the state and neighbouring New South Wales, police said.
Victoria’s deputy police commissioner Kieran Walshe said all the deaths were in a massive fire 80 km (50 miles) north of Melbourne in rural towns — six at Kinglake, four at nearby Wandong, three at Strathewen and one in Clonbinane.
The six killed in Kinglake were all in the same car, Walshe told reporters.
“This is an absolute tragedy for the state and we believe the figure may even get worse,” said Walshe.
“We base that on the fact we’re only just getting into these areas now … to search buildings … the figure could get into the 40s,” he said.
The Victorian bushfire had burnt some 3,000 hectares of mainly national park earlier on Saturday, before it flared in the afternoon when a cool southerly change hit with strong winds fanning the fire into local towns. Within hours the fire had burnt some 30,000 hectares, said fire officials.
Australia’s worst bushfires occurred in 1983 when 75 people were killed in Victoria. On Saturday night more than 85 towns in the state remain on red alert on.
Peter Mitchell, a resident of the rural town of Kinglake said the town had no time to act as the fire raced through.
“The whole township is pretty much on fire,” Mitchell told Australian Broadcasting Corp radio.
“There was no time to do anything … it came through in minutes. There’ll be a massive loss of houses … there’ll be a lot of us homeless,” he said.
“All those who have made it into town will be fine. The others will be sheltering and working on their fire plans, God help them.”
Police said dozens of houses were destroyed in Victoria and local media said at least 100 homes had been burnt down in fires in the two states.
“Today Victoria has experienced the worst fire conditions in history, even worse than Ash Wednesday of 1983,” Victoria’s state Premier John Brumby said in a statement.
KILLED ESCAPING FIRES
Australian fire officials advise residents to stay and defend their homes against bushfires, as most homes are damaged not by the firefront but by embers blown onto roofs. Evacuation is a last resort and residents are told to leave early.
“They were late evacuating and the worst place to be is on the road,” Victorian fire official Greg Esnouf told Australia’s Sky television referring to those killed in Kinglake.
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
“Every indicator we have of fire behaviour blew off the scale on a day like today,” said Esnouf, adding on a scale of 100, Saturday’s main blaze was 300.
“Water has very little affect, the fire runs so rapidly you can not put control lines around them, you can’t even attack the head of the fire,” he said. “These fires are going to take days and days to get under control.”
On Saturday temperatures in Melbourne soared to 46.4 degrees Celsius (115.5 Fahrenheit), the highest on record, local media said, with the mercury in the community of Laverton on the city’s west hitting 47.9 C (118.2 F).
Rain had started to fall in areas around the main Victorian fire, but high winds were still fanning the flames.
“Its raining black soot,” said one woman near the fire.