As the Victorian state in Australia is throwing its all into the fight against a devastating bushfire, the death toll has risen to 131.
Authorities in Victoria have warned volunteers they face a grim and confronting task as they start to pick up the pieces from the deadliest bushfire disaster in Australian history.
AdvertisementPolice chief commissioner Christine Nixon warned the public to prepare for news of more deaths.
"I still think that we do have more to find, and that will be because we are getting into different areas that were previously too hot for us to go there," she told Melbourne radio.
Firefighters continued to battle fires this morning, with the town of Stanley near Beechworth potentially under threat. .
Up to 700 homes and 340,000ha of land were destroyed. More than 3730 people had registered with the Red Cross as having left their properties and the total homeless figure is expected to be much higher.
State government officials said the toll could rise further as fires continue to burn.
"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," Kevin Rudd said yesterday as he pledged both financial aid and the support of the Australian Defence Force for the recovery effort.
Despite repeated warnings in the lead-up to Saturday's heatwave, the state was overwhelmed by a series of fires, some of them believed to be deliberately lit, that stretched from the South Australian to the NSW borders, up the centre of Victoria, and down toward the coast in Gippsland.
"The firefighters were hit early and hit hard and the fires were impossible to control," Victorian Premier John Brumby said last night. "It was worse than Ash Wednesday and Black Friday."
In a cruel twist of nature, while Melburnians greeted a cool change late on Saturday afternoon after the mercury had hit a record high of 46.4C - the highest for any Australian capital city - the shifting winds turned a fire one hour to the city's northeast in the Kinglake area into a raging inferno.
Of the 700 or so properties destroyed so far throughout the state, 550 were from this pocket of the picturesque Yarra Valley.
Across the Great Dividing Range, the postcard-perfect township of Marysville was flattened to a ghastly mess of rubble and soot, with only one or two buildings left standing. So far two people have been confirmed dead, including 73-year-old Marie Walsh, but townsfolk fear there are up to 11 bodies lying in those ruins, or in the surrounding ashes. Some of those are feared to be children, Australian newspaper reported.
"I asked one friend about her dad and she just looked blankly at me and said, 'He's gone'," said Stephen Collins, manager of Marysville's Kooringa resort. "I believe 11 friends have perished."
When snow comes to Victoria's high country, Marysville is a charming coffee stop on the road to the ski slopes. When the wind and heat came on Saturday, bringing with it fire of devastating intensity, Marysville was razed.
On the suburban outskirts of Bendigo, the home town of Mr Brumby, a cigarette butt flicked from a passing car is believed to have started a fire that claimed at least two lives.
Throughout Kinglake's blackened rolling hills and gullies there were dreadful accounts of death.
People perished in their homes and on the roads as they fled. One woman, a firefighter, died at St Andrews when she returned to her home to save her animals.
Firefighters described chaotic scenes of cars that had crashed into trees or into one another and that were yesterday black and smouldering, some of them with their doors flung open.
Mr Rudd visited a CFA command centre in Kangaroo Ground, south of the Kinglake area, and joined Mr Brumby and Victoria Police Chief Commissioner Christine Nixon for one of many sombre press conferences held through the day.
Mr Rudd said this was an appalling tragedy for the state, and for the nation.
"To echo what the Premier said before, our first response as human beings is one of just the deepest empathy for people whose lives have now been devastated," Mr Rudd said.
"This loss of life, the numbers of injured and horrific injuries, our thoughts and our prayers go out to each and everyone of them as they now try and deal with this tragedy and recover from the damage which has occurred.
"Also as human beings we salute the extraordinary courage of all the emergency services workers. And, the Premier and I've heard just some small stories of this today, there'll be others larger told later on."
In an address to the ravaged state last night, Victorian Premier John Brumby promised his Government would not stop until the devastated communities had been rebuilt.