SYDNEY (Reuters) - Cooler weather helped thousands of firefighters begin to get a grip on Australia’s deadliest bushfires on Wednesday but 181 people were confirmed dead in parts of the southeast devastated by the infernos.
Forensic police sifted through ash to identify bodies and the Sydney Morning Herald said the death toll could reach 300 as many burned-out areas had not yet been searched.
Victoria state Premier John Brumby said there may be 50 to 100 dead in Marysville, a town of some 500 residents which had been sealed off to the public because of the horrific scenes. “There are still many deceased people in their homes,” said Brumby.
“The toll is going to be massive,” said firefighter John Munday, who was in Marysville 10 minutes before the firefront swept through the town on Saturday night.
“We had people banging on the sides of our tanker begging us to go back to houses where they knew there were people trapped, but we couldn’t because if we had, we’d all be dead too,” Munday told The Australian.
The fires tore through rural towns north of Melbourne on Saturday night, fanned by strong winds and heatwave temperatures. Melbourne’s temperature on Saturday hit a city record of 46.4 Celsius (115.5 Fahrenheit).
The disaster area, more than twice the size of London and encompassing more than 20 towns north of Melbourne, has been declared a crime zone. More than 750 homes have been destroyed.
Victoria state police have launched the nation’s biggest arson investigation, dubbed “Operation Phoenix.” The bushfires were suspicious because there were no natural events such as lightning to start the blazes, police said.
Bushfire arsonists could face manslaughter or murder charges.
More than 4,000 firefighters are battling some 33 fires in Victoria state, 23 of them still out of control.
The firefighters were backburning to starve fires of fuel and extending control lines on Wednesday and warmer weather was forecast for the coming weekend.
“We’ve still got several significant fires burning across the state but the weather conditions at the moment have stilled a little bit, which is allowing some good active work,” said emergency official Nina Cullen.
The bushfires are the worst natural disaster in Australia in 110 years. The previous worst bushfire was the Ash Wednesday fires of 1983 which killed 75 people.
The blazes have increased pressure on Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to take firm action on climate change as scientists blamed global warming for the conditions that fueled the disaster.
Australia is particularly vulnerable to climate change because of its hot, dry environment. But it is dependent on coal-fired power and Rudd has set a target for cuts in overall greenhouse gas emissions of only 5 percent by 2020.
Australia is the most fire-prone country on earth, say scientists, and most of its bushfires are ignited by lightning. Fire officials monitor lightning strikes and any fire that does not correspond with a strike is assumed to be started by people, either accidentally or deliberately.
Victoria has ordered a Royal Commission of Inquiry to probe all aspects of the bushfires, including safety guidelines.
Officials say the golden rule of surviving forest fires is to evacuate early or stay and defend one’s home, but experts say many victims in Victoria appear to have panicked and fled at the worst time.
Some were incinerated in their cars as they tried to outrun the flames.
Editing by Tim Pearce