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More than 400 bushfires fanned by strong winds hit the Australian states of Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia over the weekend. Officials said at least 171 people have been killed and more than 800 homes have been destroyed, the vast majority in the worst affected areas north of Melbourne in Victoria State, and both the toll of human life and property is almost certain to rise. Reports said up to 1,200 square miles (3,100 square kilometres) have been affected and entire towns have been completely destroyed by what police are describing as the worst bushfires in the country’s history. Australia’s previous worst bushfire event was in 1983 when 75 people were killed and 2,300 homes were destroyed in the “Ash Wednesday” fires. Police said at least two of the fires that struck over the weekend may have been started deliberately and have sealed off two of the worst hit towns in Victoria (Marysville and Kinglake), where dozens of deaths occurred.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has announced an immediate aid package of AUD10 million (USD7 million) and said damaged areas would take years to rebuild. The Red Cross said 5,000 people have lost or evacuated their homes. Victoria was the worst affected state. Two large fires caused most of the damage in the state, one located northeast of Melbourne that virtually razed the towns of Kinglake and Marysville, and a second that raced across Gippsland to the southeast of Melbourne. The fires have disrupted transportation in the affected areas, with authorities closing several main roads and highways. Up to 14,000 homes and businesses are reportedly without power and officials said it could be weeks before it is fully restored. A number of vineyards in the Yarra Valley were also destroyed, Reuters said.
The largest blaze in Victoria was located in the Kinglake area, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) northeast of Melbourne. This bushfire burned around 810 square miles (2,000 square kilometers) as it tore through several towns on February 7, 2009, destroying everything in its path. Reports said the fire was as tall as a four-storey building and was sparking spot fires 25 miles (40 kilometers) ahead of itself. Kinglake, Marysville and their surrounding communities were the worst affected areas, with Marysville (population of around 800 people) reported to have been virtually wiped out (up to 90 percent of buildings destroyed) and Kinglake also reported to be devastated. The Kinglake area is thought to be the worst affected location, with more than 550 homes destroyed and at least 45 people confirmed dead. Other towns reportedly affected by the blaze include Whittlesea, Wandong, Strathewen, Narbethlong, Buxton, Taggerty, and St Andrews. The Insurance Council of Australia said it was too early to estimate the cost of the damage.
Blazes have been burning for weeks in Victoria and tens of thousands of firefighters were deployed over the weekend when temperatures of up to 118 degrees F (48 degrees C) and strong winds created a firestorm that swept across the state. A long-running drought in the south of the Australia has left forests extra dry and created fire conditions that officials said were the worst ever in Australia. Officials are investigating the cause of the bushfires, suspecting that some were started deliberately while others were ignited by lightning strikes or discarded cigarettes.
Temperatures dropped and conditions improved on February 9, 2009, aiding the tens of thousands of firefighters that are battling to bring the fires under control. Although the fires in New South Wales and South Australia are reported to be largely contained or burning away from residential areas, 31 are still burning in Victoria with several communities at risk. Fire officials said a 127 square mile (330 square kilometer) blaze is threatening communities including Churchill and Wron Wron in south Gippsland. Elsewhere, towns at risk in northeast Victoria include Dederang, Tallangatta, Beechworth, Yackandandah, Toolangai, Gundowring, Gundowring Upper, Glen Creek, Kergunyah South, Mudgeegonga, and Running Creek. Victorian Premier John Brumby said the fires would inevitably claim more lives as the crisis continues.
The bushfires are the most deadly natural disaster in Australia in 110 years, according to reports. In 1899, Cyclone Mahina struck Australia’s northern Cape York, killing more than 400.
Sources: BBC News, CNN News, Associated Press, Associated Press, Agence France Presse, Reuters News, Australian Associated Press, Australian Broadcasting Corporation
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