Australia wildfire death toll expected to pass 200

By: AP
By: AP

HEALESVILLE, Australia (AP) -- The high death toll from hundreds of wildfires across southeastern Australia has forced authorities to re-examine an accepted survival strategy when blazes threaten: Get out early or hunker down and fight.

Many people waited too long and perished as they tried to escape the weekend infernos.

"People need to understand that a late departure is the most deadly," fire chief Paul Rees said.

Recovery teams moving into burned out towns in Victoria state found charred bodies on roadsides and in wrecked cars - grim signs of futile attempts to flee the raging wildfires fed by 60 mph (100 kph) winds, record heat and drought. The number of deaths was expected to surpass 200, and a few fires were still burning.

"The clear evidence is that the most dangerous place to be is on the road," Rees, Victoria's country fire authority chief, told reporters Tuesday.

The scale of the disaster has shocked a nation that endures deadly firestorms every few years.

Authorities defended their preparations and actions during the fires that swept southeastern Australia on Saturday, saying the extreme weather conditions made catastrophe almost inevitable.

But they agreed that the "stay and defend" policy, under which homeowners remain to protect their properties from fire, needed to be reviewed.

"It is the application of that policy and a lack of an alternative that we need to work on," Rees said.

Evacuation is not mandatory in high-risk areas, and Australia's wildfire services largely comprise volunteers who lack the resources to protect every home.

In Victoria, there is no formal alert system to warn of approaching wildfires, though the Country Fire Authority distributes advice and updates on its Web site and through radio broadcasts.

One expert suggested Australia's shifting demographics could be partly to blame for the scale of the tragedy.

Mark Adams of the Bushfire Cooperative Research Center told Australian Broadcasting Corp. Television that many urbanites who moved to city outskirts have no experience with wildfires and rely wholly on the fire service for help. But families who have lived in the area for generations are prepared to battle blazes themselves, Adams said.

Victoria state Premier John Brumby said he asked Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to consider setting up a national emergency fire warning system months ago.

But officials agree that in the worst conditions, the direction and intensity of fires can change so quickly that sirens, e-mails and other warning systems are not effective.

The wildfires outside Melbourne, Australia's second largest city, destroyed more than 750 homes, left 5,000 people homeless, and burned 1,100 square miles (2,850 square kilometers) of land, the fire authority said.

While the official death toll stood at 181 Tuesday evening, Brumby said there were an additional 50 bodies that the coroner had not identified and were not included in the official tally.

"This is going to be a significant number. It will exceed 200 deaths," he said.

One elderly resident of Healesville, who asked not to be identified by name, said he escaped before the blaze engulfed his home but he lost two friends.

"It was too fast," said the white-bearded man, tears streaming down his cheek and his chin quivering. "They had prepared their property but they wouldn't have wanted to die there."

Healesville lies about 60 miles (100 kilometers) northeast of Melbourne.

The Coleman family in Kinglake district, about 70 miles (130 kilometers) from Melbourne, had a clear plan: 29-year-old Brooke took her two daughters to her parent's house about 20 miles (32 kilometers) away, while her husband Zack stayed to protect their home.

But leaving her husband - a member of the town's fire guard - was terrifying.

"I left Saturday evening with the fire at my heels," Brooke Coleman said. "I could see the mountain on fire, and he was in it."

Her husband saved their property, but some of their neighbors lost their homes. Coleman said the government should not dictate whether families stay or go.

"I don't think it's the government's fault so many died," she said. "I think more education is needed for people's awareness of when to leave and when not to leave."

Victoria's Police and Emergency Services Minister Bob Cameron said the state government would not consider making any policy changes until it received the recommendations of a commission investigating the disaster.

Police suspect some fires were started by arsonists. Police Assistant Commissioner Dannye Moloney said a sketch would soon be released of a suspect in one of the fires, which killed 21 people.

Of Australia's estimated 60,000 fires in forests and other vegetation each year, about half are arson or are suspicious, the government-funded Institute of Criminology said this month.

Parliament suspended normal debate for a second day Tuesday to hear condolence speeches.

The possibility of arson "leaves us speechless," Rudd said. "This ... is simply murder on a grand scale."

President Barack Obama telephoned Rudd to convey his condolences and offer assistance. Dozens of other world leaders also sent condolences.

Firefighters continued to battle more than a dozen blazes across Victoria on Tuesday, although conditions were much cooler than during the weekend. Forecasters said temperatures would rise later in the week, posing a risk of flare-ups.

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