Bushfire deathtoll hits 131

18:34, Feb 07 2009
GETTING OUT: Residents of the township of Kinglake make their way to buses to be evacuated after fires swept through at the weekend.

Australia has witnessed its greatest natural disaster. Worse than Black Friday. Worse than Ash Wednesday. Only in wartime has the toll of dead and wounded been greater.

At 20.05 today the official death toll was 131. The toll is expected to rise, possibly as high as 200.

At least 750 homes have also been destroyed - 550 of those in Kinglake, north of Melbourne, and surrounding areas.

GOING NOWHERE: A burnt out truck at Narbethong, Victoria.

According to police figures, another 11 people were found dead at Kinglake West, north of Melbourne, taking that community's toll to 20, while another four bodies were found at Marysville taking that town's toll to eight.

And much worse is still to come. Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, said: "Hell in all its fury has visited the good people of Victoria in the last 24 hours, and many good people now lie dead; many others lie injured.

"I fear in the days ahead that the news is going to be bad and, I believe, the nation needs to prepare itself as full facts become known," he said.


WIPED OUT: Destroyed vineyards in the Yarra Valley after fire ripped through yesterday during Victoria's hottest day on record.

There were 31 active fires across the state as of 7.20am today, with five - at Beechworth, Churchill, Murrindindi, the Kinglake complex and Bunyip - causing the most concern.

The Beechworth blaze has burnt 30,000 hectares and continues to threaten the communities of Stanley, Bruarong, Dederang, Gundowring, Gundowring Upper, Kancoona, Kancoona South, Coral Bank, Glenn Creek and Running Creek.

Strike teams are also working between Buxton, Marysville and Narbethong to clear access along roadsides into properties.

FIRESTORM: Peter Lovett at Narbethong where he stayed and defended his house while fire ripped through at the weekend.

Among the first victims identified last night were Channel Nine's former chief newsreader Brian Naylor, 78, of Kinglake West, and his wife, Moiree. Their daughter-in-law, who lived across the road, is believed to have survived with her two children. The first victim named was Peter Avola of Strathewen. And slowly, but surely, the names of the many other victims trickled in. Rae Carter of St Andrews. George Jackson of St Andrews. John and Sue Wilson, whose home at Barwidgee Creek was destroyed.

Among the missing were the former Blue Heelers actor Reg Evans.

The towns of Kinglake and Marysville have been wiped out as if they had been bombed, and authorities are treating the disaster like a terrorist attack, with more than 330,000 hectares of land affected.

Almost half of Victoria may be declared a crime scene, with arsonists believed responsible for several of the fires. Police said an offender implicated in the fatal fires could be charged with the offence of arson causing death, a crime with a maximum penalty of 25 years in jail.

NSW was lucky to escape. Despite more than 50 fires blazing, there has been no loss of life or property, although one man was charged with arson over a blaze in Peats Ridge, on the Central Coast.

Police have also charged a boy, 15, with arson over a small fire at Faulconbridge. He is expected to face Parramatta Children's Court in several weeks.

Marie Jones of Canberra, who was visiting a friend at Kinglake, said a badly burnt man had arrived at the property where she was staying with his infant daughter, and told her his wife and other child had been killed.

"He was so badly burnt. . . . his little girl was burnt, but not as badly as her dad, and he just came down and he said, 'Look, I've lost my wife, I've lost my other kid, I just need you to save [my daughter]'," Ms Jones said.

More than 70 people died in the Black Friday fires of 1939, and 75 on Ash Wednesday in 1983 - 47 of them Victorians. Senior police sources told the Sydney Morning Herald they feared the final figure would be double that.

The military has been put on stand-by to provide assistance.

The first of several interstate victim identification teams arrived yesterday to help Victoria Police and coronial staff under a terrorist contingency plan framed in response to the September 11 terrorist attacks of 2001.

Bodies in burnt-out cars will have to be removed first so that roads can be opened to the public before gutted buildings can be combed for remains of the missing. Victoria's morgue was full last night - and hospitals and universities were being asked to store bodies until formal identifications could be made.

Some of the 80 people in hospital were not expected to survive. Ten people remain in a critical condition.

The once pretty alpine town of Marysville was reduced to a tangled mess of smoking rubble and twisted iron.

Most residents were evacuated to nearby Alexandra, which was under threat from fire last night.

But some of those who left too late or stayed to fight the fire lost their lives.

The fire that began at the old Murrindindi sawmill near Yea earlier on Saturday raced across the Black Spur and razed the hamlet of Narbethong and then Marysville, house by house, street by street.

After one terrible hour Marysville was no more. Few buildings escaped. Every public building - including the police station, post office, telephone exchange - and the much-loved guest houses and a hotel, had been destroyed. Worse was the fact that some of the gutted cars and buildings had human remains in them.

Names were unavailable last night but the few residents who stayed and survived talked numbly yesterday of one firefighter's family being killed, of an age pensioner dying at home and of cars being found with human remains in them. They hoped the toll was as few as five - but it could be much higher, they said.

Leigh Jowett, a third-generation resident, saved the old house he had grown up in - then helped his neighbours save theirs. "There might only be 15 or 20 houses left in Marysville," Mr Jowett said. "There's only three left in Falls Road - and the whole main street is gone apart from one motel."

He listed the burnt-out buildings: the Marylands and the Cumberland guest houses, post office, police station, kindergarten, general store, time-share apartments, caravan park and the Marysville Hotel.

Graham Haycraft, formerly of Marysville, was distressed to hear his old family home had been destroyed but counted himself lucky to have moved out.

"My heart goes out to people who are part of my life."

He expected to return to town for the funerals.

- with AAP

The Age