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Australia wildfire deaths pass 100
Arsonists blamed for starting deadly fires sweeping across southeastern states.
Last Modified: 08 Feb 2009 21:14 GMT

The wildfires have devastated swaths of
southeastern Australia [AFP]

At least 108 people are now known to have been killed in the deadliest wildfires ever to sweep Australia, officials have said.

Police and a Department of Sustainability and Environment spokesman in the state of Victoria gave the latest death toll early on Monday, but there were fears it could rise as emergency crews search more than 700 houses destroyed in the flames.

Many people are believed to have died in their cars as they tried to escape the fires.

Arsonists are being held responsible for starting some of the blazes, which are sweeping across an area of about 3,000 sq km across three states.

"These people are terrorists within our nation, they are the enemy within and we have to be increasingly vigilant about them," Mike Rann, the governor of South Australia state, said on Sunday.

At least 20 per cent of the fires in South Australia state were started by arsonists and another 20 per cent were the result of "stupidity or negligence," Rann said.

Arsonists were also relighting fires that had been brought under control, a fire authority official in Victoria said.

'Hell's fury'

Steve Warrington, a deputy chief of firefighting operations, told local radio: "We know we do have someone who is lighting fires in this community.

Related

 Video: Australia's fire fight
 Pictures: Battling the blaze

"While we often think it is spotting [embers spreading flames], we also know that there are people lighting fires deliberately."

"Some of these fires have started in localities that could only be by hand, it could not be natural causes," Kieran Walshe, the Victoria state police deputy commissioner, said on Sunday.

Firefighters and army units are struggling to get control over the blazes across the states of Victoria, South Australia and New South Wales.

Caroline Douglass, a spokesperson for the country fire authority, told Al Jazeera: "We still have roughly 25 [fires] going. We currently have over 4,000 firefighters in the state who are working away.

"The army will assist us with that and we are asking for assistance from other states in Australia and they are also helping us with that too."

Witnesses described seeing trees exploding and ash raining from the skies.

Lance Sheppard, a resident of Healesville in Victoria, told Al Jazeera: "One minute we were looking at a whole range of smoke coming out of the northwest. And the next ... the weather turned and within minutes it was on us.

"It was like a roaring jet coming at us ... There was no way we could get away, but we had a fire plan put in place, we had hoses everywhere and a fire pump and that's what saved us."

Kevin Rudd, Australia's prime minister, toured the burned-out region on Sunday, and said: "Hell in all its fury has visited the good people of Victoria in the last 24 hours."

Record temperatures

The southeastern Australian states have been gripped in a heatwave for the past two weeks.

Fierce winds were fanning the fires and pushing them in unpredictable directions in Victoria on Sunday, after temperatures reached a state record of 47 degrees Celsius.

Forecasters said hot and uncertain weather conditions would continue through the day on Sunday.

Blair Trewin, a climatologist with the National Climate Centre in Melbourne, told Al Jazeera: "They are the most extreme conditions that we have ever seen in historic record in parts of southeastern Australia.

"We are seeing an upward trend in temperatures in Australia, as elsewhere in the world."

The worst wildfires in recent memory killed 75 people and razed 2,500 homes in Victoria in 1983.

Source:
Al Jazeera and agencies
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