HEALESVILLE, Australia – Towering flames razed an entire town in southeastern Australia and burned fleeing residents alive in their cars, authorities said today as the death toll from the country’s worst fire disaster in a quarter-century reached 65.
Officials said at least 640 homes were destroyed in Saturday’s inferno when searing temperatures and wind blasts produced a firestorm that swept across a swath of the country’s Victoria state, where all the deaths occurred.
“Hell in all its fury has visited the good people of Victoria in the last 24 hours,” Prime Minister Kevin Rudd told reporters as he toured the fire zone. “It’s an appalling tragedy for the nation.”
Thousands of exhausted volunteer firefighters were still battling nine uncontrolled fires today in Victoria, though conditions had eased considerably. Government officials said the army would be deployed to help out.
Witnesses described seeing trees exploding and skies raining ash on Saturday as temperatures of up 117 combined with blasting winds to create furnace-like conditions.
Police said they were hampered from reaching burned-out areas to confirm details of deaths and property loss. But Victoria Police Commissioner Christine Nixon confirmed deaths at a dozen sites.
Police said they believed groups of bodies had been found in cars in at least two places – suggesting families or groups of friends were engulfed in flames as they tried to flee.
In total, 65 deaths were confirmed by today, said police spokeswoman Leanne Quentin.