Sunday, February 8, 2009

At least 14 people are believed to have died in Australian wildfires raging across the south-east of the country, with unconfirmed reports that the death toll could climb beyond 40.

A deadly combination of scorching temperatures and gale-force winds saw out-of-control bushfires sweeping through parts of New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia.

"There are 14 dead. These areas are still very hot so we cannot get into many of the areas," a police spokesman said.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) said the deaths had occurred near four towns in Victoria, where 3,000 firefighters are battling at least 10 major fire fronts.

Victoria's deputy police commissioner, Kieran Walshe, said dozens of homes had been destroyed in the state and officials feared the death toll could ultimately be "in the 40s".

As temperatures reached 47C (117F), more than 10,000 volunteer firefighters were put on standby. In New South Wales, helicopters and planes dumped water from the air on several fires which left a haze in the sky over Sydney.

The fires have been caused by the most severe heatwave for a century, low humidity and strong winds.

The worst has reportedly burned 165 hectares (410 acres) of a park near Melbourne. There are three fires in the Hunter Valley region north of Sydney.

ABC quoted fire officials as saying that 30 homes near the town of Kilmore in Victoria had been burned. But officials in the state capital, Melbourne, said the scene was so chaotic they could not immediately confirm the number.

The fear is that the fires will spread further if winds pick up. The Victoria premier, John Brumby, said: "Victoria has experienced the worst fire conditions in history."

Temperatures eased later in the day after hitting a top of 47C. In 1983, a wildfire killed 75 people on a day now known as Ash Wednesday. Link to this topic

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