Australia — Walls of flame roared across southeastern Australia on Saturday, razing scores of homes, forests and farmland in the sunburned country’s worst wildfire disaster in a quarter century. At least 25 people died and the toll could rise to more than 40, police said.
Witnesses described seeing trees exploding and skies raining ash as temperatures hit a record 117 degrees Saturday and combined with raging winds to create perfect conditions for uncontrollable blazes. A long-running drought insouthern Australia the worst in a century has left forests extra dry.
The fires were so massive they were visible from space.NASA released satellite photographs showing a white cloud of smoke across southeastern Australia.
Police said they believed some of the fires were set deliberately and predicted it would take days to get all the blazes under control.
The threat eased somewhat early Sunday as temperatures fell sharply, winds slowed, and rain began falling in some areas.
Thousands of firefighters struggled through Saturday night to make headway against the largest of about a dozen large fires in Victoria state that earlier in the day ripped unchecked across at least 115 square miles of forests, farmland and towns. The single worst fire was about 60 miles north of the southern city of Melbourne.
“The whole township is pretty much on fire,”Peter Mitchell, a resident of the town of Kinglake, where at least six people died, told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio during the inferno. “There was no time to do anything. … It came through in minutes.”
Victoria Police Deputy Commissioner Kieran Walshe said investigators making their way into burned out areas had confirmed 25 deaths, all of them in Victoria state.
“To have 25 confirmed deceased, that gives me great concern that the numbers are going to get substantially higher as the day goes on, as we’re able to get into the fire zones behind the fires to do those searches,” Walshe toldNine Network television.
“It’s been, I think, the worst day in our history,” saidVictorian Premier John Brumby, whose parents’ house was among those saved by firefighters Saturday.
Temperatures that reached a state record of around 117 degreesFahrenheit eased late Saturday as a cool front moved through the hard-hit Gippsland region east ofMelbourne, but along with it came wind changes that pushed the fires in new and unpredictable directions.
Forecasters said temperatures would only reach about 77 degrees on Sunday around Melbourne.
On Saturday, steel-gray smoke clogged the air and flames roared to two-story heights, while homes and businesses burned. At least one fire truck was charred, though the crew escaped injury and went on to rejoin the fight, officials said.
In the Gippsland town of Taralgon, resident Lindy McPhee watched in fear as a fire front edged closer to the town until rain began falling late Saturday.
“It’s raining black soot,” McPhee toldSky News television. “We’d been watching the glow for hours.”
In Wittlesea, another Gippsland town, organizer Sally Tregae said she canceled performances at the town’s annual country music festival and sent thousands of visitors out of town to safety.
“I saw trees explode in front of me,” she said. “It’s a horrible thing, and a horrible thing to see. I have friends who have lost houses.”
Victoria’s Country Fire Authority deputy chief Greg Esnouf said the conditions on Saturday were “off the scale” in terms of danger.
“We’ve still got a massive amount of work to do to get these fires under control,” Esnouf told Sky. “It’s going to take days and days to get them under control.”
Late Saturday, Walshe said 14 of the dead were at four sites all connected to the same fire north of Melbourne. Six of those died in the same vehicle at Kinglake raising fears that they may be a family. Officials declined to give details of the deaths until further investigations were carried out.
“This has been an absolute tragedy for this state,” Walshe told a news conference. The death toll “could even reach up into the 40s,” he said
InNew South Wales state, police detained and questioned a man in connection with a blaze but released him without charge.
Earlier Saturday, Sydney, the New South Wales capital, was shrouded in a pall of smoke from three fires burning north of the city. Crews battled into Sunday to keep several uncontrolled fires away from homes.
InSouth Australia, the third state in theheat wave’s grip, the threat from a large fire eased on Sunday.
Wildfires are common during the Australian summer, as rising temperatures bake forest land tinder dry and blustering winds fan embers.
Some 60,000 fires occur each year, and about half are deliberately lit or suspicious, government research says.Lightning strikes and human activity such as use of machinery near dry brush cause the others.
Australia’s deadliest fires were in 1983, when blazes killed 75 people and razed more than 3,000 homes in Victoria and South Australia. In 2003, hundreds of houses were destroyed and four people died when a huge blaze tore into the national capital,Canberra. In 2006, nine people died in fires on South Australia’sEyre Peninsula.