Nearly 200 Dead in Australian Bushfires

February 9th, 2009

More than 171 people have been killed in fires raging through Australia, making this the deadliest bushfire in Australian history. Nearly 815,447 acres (330,000 hectares) have been burned and 750 homes have been burned to the ground. In 1983, 75 people were killed on what is dubbed the Ash Wednesday fire. 71 people were killed in similar fires in 1939. The country’s prime minister, Kevin Rudd calls the fires “mass murder”.

“This is of a level of horror that few of us anticipated. There are no words to describe it other than mass murder,” said Rudd who also called the situation “numbing”.

The combination of Australia’s long term drought, a record heat wave with temperatures as high as 117 fahrenheit (47.2 C) and winds over 60mph, sparked the dozens of fires across Victoria. Some are being investigated as arson. Over 60,000 firefighters are battling the various blazes. These fires although common in Australia have caught people unprepared due to their intensity and speed. Survivors of Kinglake tell of how up until 10 minutes before the fire started to tear through their country town people were unaware of how close and dangerous the fire really was.

24 people from Kinglake and Kinglake West have died and hundreds of houses have burnt to the ground. Over 1,500 people in Kinglake alone have been left homeless, left with a town which has mostly burned to the ground. Many people have been caught in the terrifying position of staying and fighting for their houses or fleeing before the fires arrive. Many of the people who have died have attempted to flee in their cars too late and were caught in the middle of the inferno, some being burned alive. Despite the efforts of firefighters, many towns have been totally destroyed, leaving nothing but piles of ashes. Witnesses and survivors of fires in Marysville and Narbethong, Victoria, describe the towns as being totally wiped out or substantially damaged.

Authorities are investigating the fires, some 20% of them are being called arson or have being started by human error, leaving much of the scorched land a crime scene of ashes. Some of the fires were reignited by arsonists after firefighters had already took control of them. Others are believed to have been started by lighting tires on fire.

“Some of these fires have started in localities that could only be by hand, it could not be natural causes,” said deputy commissioner for the Victoria state police, Kieran Walshe. Fire fighting operations chief, Steve Warrington says that the fire departments “know [they] have someone who is lighting fires in this community.”

The Federal Government has pledged $10 million (4.4 million pounds) in immediate assistance with more to come as the situation becomes clear. The other States of Australia have also announced their plans to help Victoria and Victorians during this time. New South Wales will send 250 firefighters and 50 tankers. The Australian Capital Territory home to Canberra has pledged 90 firefighters and support equipment.

Australia’s neighbour New Zealand is currently considering what assistance it will be able to provide. For the moment the nation has sent 100 firefighters to help with battling the blazes. The team is expected to arrive to Australia in as little as 24 hours.

“What we can do is, with that manpower, really help out even if it’s just a matter of relieving at times. We’ve obviously got to make sure we protect our domestic situation as well,” said New Zealand prime minister John Key.

Anybody wanting to make a donation to help the victims can contact the Red Cross.

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