Toll rises to 108 in Australia’s ‘hell on Earth’


Sydney : Australia’s worst forest fires on record left at least 108 people dead Sunday, with grave fears for many more. The inferno that started Saturday in southeast Australia is 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.

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“Out there, it’s been hell on earth,” Victoria state Premier John Brumby said in a statement. “The scale of the tragedy defies comprehension.”

More than 750 houses have been lost, 200,000 hectares of forest blackened and the town of Kinglake obliterated and 55 of its residents dead.

“We looked over and there was a wall of flames looking at us and everything went pitch black,” Joanne Fisher said of the Kinglake conflagration that took her home. “I’ve never seen anything like it in my life. You see this on TV – it doesn’t happen to you.”

Melbourne’s Alfred Hospital, the biggest in the state of Victoria, was struggling to cope with people badly burned when, in cars or on foot, they failed to outrun the approaching fire.

“There are apparently cars along the roadside just abandoned,” Alfred trauma specialist John Coleridge said. “Unfortunately they’ll probably find many more people, many of whom may not survive.”

The call has gone out for refrigerated containers to be used as temporary morgues to preserve bodies yet to be identified.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd called in the army to help with the firefighting and to assist in shifting smouldering tree trunks that blocked roads, preventing ambulances getting through to the injured.

In the mountain resort of Marysville, home to 1,000 people, local reporter Jane Cowan said only a handful of buildings remained standing.

“There are stories of households that sheltered three families in one house, of gas bottles from nearby houses exploding and then piercing their houses and then those houses catching fire as well,” Cowan told national broadcaster ABC.

“A woman who was found in her car this morning – obviously was trying to escape (but) she didn’t make it – she had her crockery on the seat beside her in the car,” she added.

Traumatized survivors tell of cattle on fire and blackened cars with charred bodies inside.

Emergency Services Commissioner Bruce Esplin said many had underestimated the ferocity of the firestorm.

“Nature gave Victoria a beating of unimaginable proportions,” he said. “Bushfire risk is real, it’s horribly real – it can become an awful reality with little warning and no second chance. You can rebuild a house but you can’t rebuild a life.”

Brumby said that strong winds and high temperatures created tinderbox conditions a volunteer army of 30,000 firefighters backed by 37 water-bombing aircraft simply could not match.

In less than 12 hours one fire raced 40 km through eucalyptus forests, stopping only at the sea shore.

There are 26 fires still burning, 12 of them outside the trenches bulldozers ripped out to try and impede their progress.

“Some of these fires just weren’t possible to control,” Brumby said. “You’ve had firefighters that were literally facing flames that were four storeys high.”

Melbourne recorded its hottest February day Saturday, with the temperature above 46 degrees.

“It’s just a day, I hope in my lifetime is never repeated,” Brumby said.