World

Arson suspected as 130 killed in deadliest-ever Australian wildfires

Towering flames razed entire towns in southeastern Australia over the weekend and burned fleeing residents in their cars. Amid a death toll of 130 people, investigators said they believe arson may be behind at least some of the blazes.

'There's no words to describe it, other than it's mass murder': PM Rudd

A police officer inspects a burnt car in Kinglake, northeast of Melbourne, on Sunday. ((Associated Press))

In the deadliest fire disaster in Australia's history, towering flames destroyed entire towns and killed at least 130 people in the country's southeast over the weekend, including some who were burned as they tried to escape by car.

Investigators said Monday they believe arson may be behind at least some of more than 400 fires that tore a path across a vast swath of the state of Victoria over the weekend. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, visibly upset during a television interview, reflected national disgust at the idea. 

"What do you say about anyone like that?" Rudd said. "There's no words to describe it, other than it's mass murder."

Police have sealed off at least two towns — Marysville and Kinglake — where dozens of deaths occurred and have set up roadside checkpoints to control access to the area.

Victoria Police Commissioner Christine Nixon said specialist fire investigators were on the ground at one fire site, in Churchill, east of Melbourne, and would go to others.

Several brushfires swept through Victoria during a brutal heat wave. Thirty fires were still burning out of control late Sunday and were tearing through several small towns north of Melbourne, the state capital.

At least 750 homes, most in the Kinglake district, have been destroyed.

"Hell in all its fury has visited the good people of Victoria," Rudd told reporters as he toured the fire zone on Sunday. "It's an appalling tragedy for the nation."

Fire officials said they expected it will take days before they're able to bring the wildfires under control, even if temperatures, which eased somewhat Saturday night, remained below the record high levels recorded in the past couple of weeks.

Marysville and several hamlets in the Kinglake district, both about 100 kilometres north Melbourne, have been largely razed by a wall of flames.

The official death toll has continued to rise since Saturday night when the weather cooled enough to allow rescue teams to scour homes.

Police said charred bodies have been found in cars in at least two places.

At least 80 people were admitted to hospital with burns. Dr. John Coleridge of Alfred Hospital, one of the largest in the fire zone, said injuries ranged from scorches on the feet of people who fled across burning ground to life-threatening burns.

Australia's previous worst fires were in 1983. They killed 75 people and razed more than 3,000 homes in Victoria and South Australia state. Seventy-one people died and 650 buildings were destroyed in 1939.

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.

With files from the Associated Press

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