Healesville, Australia: Towering flames razed entire towns in southeastern Australia and burned fleeing residents in their cars as the death toll from the country’s worst fire disaster in a quarter-century reached 65 on Sunday.
At least 640 homes were destroyed in Saturday’s inferno when searing temperatures and wind blasts produced a firestorm that swept across a swath of the country’s Victoria state, where all the deaths occurred.
“Hell in all its fury has visited the good people of Victoria in the last 24 hours,” Prime Minister Kevin Rudd told reporters as he toured the fire zone on Sunday. “It’s an appalling tragedy for the nation.”
Thousands of exhausted volunteer firefighters were still battling about 30 uncontrolled fires Sunday in Victoria, officials said, though conditions had eased considerably.
Government officials said the army would be deployed to help out, and Rudd announced immediate emergency aid of A$10 million ($7 million).
The tragedy echoed across Australia. Leaders in other states most of which have been struck by their own fire disasters in the past pledged to send money and volunteer firefighters. Funds for public donations opened Sunday quickly started swelling.
Underscoring Australia’s size and its often-harsh landscape, thousands of residents of tropical northern Queensland state watched the blanket news coverage of the fires from homes soaked by floodwaters after weeks of drenching storms.
Police said they were hampered from reaching burned-out areas to confirm details of deaths and property loss. But Victoria Police Commissioner Christine Nixon confirmed deaths at a dozen sites. The toll climbed higher in steps during the day, reaching 65 by Sunday evening and likely to rise further, said police spokeswoman Sgt. Creina O’Grady.
Australia’s deadliest fires were in 1983, when blazes killed 75 people and razed more than 3,000 homes in Victoria and South Australia.
The fires were so massive NASA took satellite photographs of the smoke cloud.
Wildfires are common during the Australian summer. Government research shows about half of the roughly 60,000 fires each year are deliberately lit or suspicious. Lightning and people using machinery near dry brush are other causes.