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Massive wildfires kill 35 in southeastern Australia

Sun., Feb. 8, 2009, midnight

SYDNEY – Walls of flame roared across southeastern Australia, razing scores of homes, forests and farmland in the country’s worst wildfire disaster in a quarter century. At least 35 people died and the toll could rise, police said today.

Witnesses described seeing trees exploding and skies raining ash as temperatures hit a record 117 degrees Fahrenheit on Saturday in Victoria state and combined with raging winds to create perfect conditions for uncontrollable blazes.

“Hell in all its fury has visited the good people of Victoria in the last 24 hours,” Prime Minister Kevin Rudd told reporters today as he toured the fire zone.

Police said they believed the deaths included groups of people whose charred bodies were found in cars – suggesting families or groups of friends were engulfed in flames as they tried to flee. One official said an entire town had been razed save for one building, though no deaths were reported there.

Conditions in Victoria eased today, but several major fires were still posing a threat and state Premier John Brumby said troops would be deployed to help thousands of exhausted volunteer firefighters battle on.

The fires were so massive they were visible from space Saturday. NASA released satellite photographs showing a white cloud of smoke across southeastern Australia.

Deputy Commissioner Kieran Walshe said police suspected some of the fires were set deliberately and predicted it would take days to get all the blazes under control.


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