HEALESVILLE, Australia (AFP) – Firefighters are battling to save Australian communities threatened by searing wildfires that have already claimed 181 lives, a toll that is expected to rise.
As tales of the horror wrought by the infernos that have razed whole towns transfixed Australia, officials said the danger was far from over and the final death toll would pass 200.
“This was truly an inland tsunami,” Russell Hildebrandt, a chaplain at the Healesville relief centre, told AFP.
“It’s just come in, swept through everything in its path and killed hundreds of people who were caught completely unawares.”
Victoria state Premier John Brumby said more than 50 people were believed by the coroner to be “already deceased but not yet identified”, and the final toll from Australia’s deadliest bushfires would “exceed 200 deaths.”
Exhausted firefighters, most of them volunteers who have had little rest since the firestorms flared in Victoria on Saturday, were fighting to halt the advance of the flames bearing down on rural towns and villages.
Healesville, about 50 kilometres (31 miles) northeast of Melbourne, was the latest community threatened by one of the 24 fires still burning, some of which are believed to have been deliberately lit.
Cool winds helped avert another disaster as the fires skirted around the town in the heart of the wine-making Yarra Valley region, but firefighters said hot weather would return later in the week.
Victoria’s Country Fire Authority had warned the town was in danger from “heavy ember attack,” a phenomenon that survivors who have faced it liken to a fiery hailstorm of burning embers.
Further east in Gippsland, firefighters were trying to control a massive blaze stretching more than 100 kilometres.
Investigators began the country’s largest ever arson probe as Prime Minister Kevin Rudd vowed to track down anyone believed responsible.
“We are left speechless at the thought and the possibility that some of these fires may have been deliberately lit,” Rudd told parliament.
“This is simply murder on a grand scale. Let us attend to this unfinished business of the nation and come to grips with this evil thing.”
Rudd said the fires had left 500 people injured, nearly 1,000 homes destroyed, 365,000 hectares (902,000 acres) burnt and had affected 25 local government authorities.
More than 5,000 people have been left homeless, many seeking shelter in community halls, schools and churches.
US President Barack Obama telephoned Rudd to offer his condolences and offer US help in fighting the blazes, the White House said, as other offers of help and support poured in from around the world.
More than 30 US firefighters are flying to Australia to join reinforcements from fire departments around the country who are heading to Victoria, Sky News reported.
Police have cordoned off whole towns as crime scenes even as desperate survivors try to return to their homes to inspect the damage.
“Road by road, house by house, we are working our way through,” Victoria Police Chief Commissioner Christine Nixon said.
“We believe the toll will rise. It’s a very sad thing for all of us in our community.”
In devastated Kinglake, Ross Buchanan risked his life to save his home — only to find his 15-year-old son McKenzie and daughter Neeve, nine, had been killed as fire ripped through the rest of the town.
“I’ve lost two kids, nothing can bring them back,” he told Sky News.
Annette Smit told how she had hidden under a house in Kinglake West to shelter from the ferocious firestorm after her own home had been destroyed.
“I knew people were dying around us, I knew.
“It rained (fire), it was like lava,” the survivor told the Herald Sun online in one of the many compelling stories of survival emerging as the nation’s worst wildfire disaster unfolds.
Australians have donated more than 30 million dollars (20 million US) to relief appeals and the Red Cross called for more money, saying some survivors had been left with only the clothes they stood in.
Queen Elizabeth II also made a private contribution, a Buckingham Palace spokeswoman said, while Australia’s celebrated national cricket team will visit the bushfire frontline to help out, the Australian Associated Press reported.
The terrain was reduced to a blackened lanscape stretching into the distance, with horses that survived the inferno searching for food in the charred soil.