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05 December 2023

Australian wildfire arsonists face murder charges as toll passes 84

Fires are raging across Victoria and New South Wales. (REUTERS)


At least 96 people were killed and entire towns razed in the worst wildfire disaster in Australian history, described by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd Sunday as "hell in all its fury."

People died in their cars as they attempted to escape the inferno -- smouldering wrecks on roads outside this town told a tale of horror -- while others were burnt to death in their homes.

While the deadly fires and a heatwave raged in southeast Australia, floods from torrential rains claimed lives in the north, with one victim a five-year-old boy feared snatched by a crocodile as he walked his dog.

The death toll from the fires jumped from 84 to 96 early Monday, the Australian Associated Press said, quoting police.

But there were fears it could rise yet further as medics treated badly burned survivors and emergency crews made it through to more than 700 houses destroyed by the fires, some of which have been blamed on arsonists.

Thousands of survivors jammed community halls, schools and other makeshift accommodation as troops and firefighters battled to control huge blazes fed by tinder-box conditions after a once-in-a-century heatwave.

Twenty-six fires were still burning in Victoria on Sunday, with another 53 blazing throughout neighbouring New South Wales.

The devastating fires have affected around 3,000 square kilometres -- an area larger than Luxembourg or nearly three times the size of Hong Kong.

"Hell in all its fury has visited the good people of Victoria in the last 24 hours. Many good people lie dead, many injured," Rudd told reporters, deploying army units to help 3,000 firefighters battling the flames.

The number of dead rose steadily throughout Sunday as rescue crews reached townships that bore the brunt of the most intense firestorm northwest of Melbourne, which survivors likened to a nuclear bomb.

The previous highest death toll in Australian wildfires was 75 people killed in Victoria and neighbouring South Australia in 1983 on what became known as Ash Wednesday.

The latest fires in Australia's southeast flared on Saturday, fanned by high winds after a heatwave sent temperatures soaring to 46 C (115 F), and continued to burn out of control Sunday.

They wiped out the pretty resort village of Marysville and largely destroyed the town of Kinglake, north of Melbourne, with houses, shops, petrol stations and schools razed to the ground.

Marie Jones said she was staying at a friend's house in Kinglake, where at least 18 people perished, when a badly burnt man arrived with his infant daughter saying his wife and other child had been killed.

"He was so badly burnt," she told the Melbourne Age's website.

"He had skin hanging off him everywhere and his little girl was burnt, but not as badly as her dad, and he just came down and he said 'Look, I've lost my wife, I've lost my other kid, I just need you to save (my daughter)'."

An AFP photographer who made it into Kinglake described a road strewn with wrecked cars telling of desperate, failed attempts to escape.

The cars appeared to have crashed into each other or into trees as towering flames put an end to their desperate flight from the town.

Some did not even make it onto the road, said Victoria Harvey, a resident waiting at a roadblock to be allowed to return to the site of her destroyed home.

She told reporters of a local businessman who lost two of his children as the family tried to flee.

"He apparently went to put his kids in the car, put them in, turned around to go grab something from the house, then his car was on fire with his kids in it and they burnt," she said.

In Kinglake, scores of homes were levelled along with shops and the school. The smouldering ruins of the town were deserted except for police and forensic experts.

Police Deputy Commissioner Kieran Walshe said there was no doubt that arsonists were behind some of the fires.

"Some of these fires have started in localities that could only be by hand, it could not be natural causes," he said.

Police have warned that arsonists could face murder charges.

The government's Australian Institute of Criminology released a report last week which said half the nation's 20,000 to 30,000 bushfires each year are deliberate.

Meanwhile in Queensland in the northeast of the country, where some towns have been inundated for a week by cyclonic rains, two people were missing after their car was swept away -- and a crocodile is believed to have taken a boy.

"The boy was walking with his seven-year-old brother earlier this morning when he followed his dog into floodwaters," police said in a statement.

"He disappeared in the water and his brother saw a large crocodile in the vicinity of his disappearance."

Much of the state has been declared a disaster zone, with an area of more than a million square kilometres and 3,000 homes affected by floods.