By Tanalee Smith
Tuesday, February 10, 2009
WHITTLESEA, Australia, Feb. 9 -- Police declared incinerated towns crime scenes Monday, and the prime minister spoke of "mass murder" after investigators said arsonists may have set some of the deadliest wildfires in Australia's history this weekend. The death toll rose to 173.
Officials said that panic and the freight-train speed of the fire front -- driven by 60-mph winds and temperatures as high as 117 degrees -- probably accounted for the unusually high toll.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, visibly upset during a television interview, reflected the country's disgust at the idea that arsonists may have set some of the 400 fires that devastated the southern state of Victoria or helped them jump containment lines. "What do you say about anyone like that?" Rudd said. "There's no words to describe it, other than it's mass murder."
From the air Monday, the landscape here was blackened as far as the eye could see. In at least one town, bodies still lay in the streets. Entire forests were reduced to charred trunks, farmland to ashes.
At Kinglake, northeast of Melbourne, a body lay in a blackened yard covered by a white sheet. Elsewhere, the burned-out hulks of four cars were clustered haphazardly after an apparent collision. Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio reported a car in a small reservoir, the driver apparently steering there in desperation.
Some were lucky. Jack Barber fled just ahead of the flames with his wife and a neighbor, driving in two cars packed with birth certificates, insurance documents, two cats, four kittens and a dog.
"We had a fire plan," he said Monday. "The plan was to get the hell out of there before the flames came."
With their escape route blocked by downed power lines and a tree, the group took shelter at a school, then, when that burned, in a cricket ground ringed by trees.
"All around us was 100-foot flames ringing the oval, and we ran where the wind wasn't. It was swirling all over the place," Barber said. "For three hours, we dodged the wind."
More than a dozen fires still burned uncontrollably across Victoria on Monday night, although conditions were cooler than on Saturday, when the wind repeatedly surged and switched about, fanning the blazes and making their direction unpredictable from minute to minute.
Local news media had issued warnings ahead of the weekend, but many people guarding their homes with backyard hoses would have been outside when the wind changed, missing new warnings.
Jim Andrews, senior meteorologist at AccuWeather.com, said the combination of record high heat, high winds, gusts and low humidity created a perfect-storm scenario for the fires. "I cannot fathom in my mind anything more hellish, fire-wise," he said.
Officials said the tolls in human life and property would almost certainly rise, and forecasters said temperatures were expected to go up again later in the week, posing a risk of further flare-ups.