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Australian fire zone a crime scene; 166 killed

Australian fire zone a crime scene; 166 killed

Australian fire zone a crime scene; 166 killed

A fire erupts in a pine tree plantati...


WHITTLESEA, Australia — Police declared incinerated towns crime scenes Monday, and the prime minister spoke of "mass murder" after investigators said arsonists may have set some of Australia's worst wildfires in history. The death toll rose to 166.

There were no quick answers, but officials said panic and the freight-train speed of the fire front — driven by 60 mph winds and temperatures as high as 117 degrees Fahrenheit (47 C) — probably accounted for the unusually high toll.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, visibly upset during a television interview, reflected the country's disgust at the idea that arsonists may have set some of the 400 fires that devastated Victoria state, or helped them jump containment lines.

"What do you say about anyone like that?" Rudd said. "There's no words to describe it, other than it's mass murder."

From the air, the landscape was blackened as far as the eye could see. In at least one town, bodies still lay in the streets. Entire forests were reduced to leafless, charred trunks, farmland to ashes. Victoria police spokeswoman Christie Pengally said the death toll as of late Monday was 166.

At Kinglake, a body covered by a white sheet lay in a yard where every tree, blade of grass and the ground was blackened. Elsewhere in the town, the burned-out hulks of four cars were clustered haphazardly together after an apparent collision. Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio reported a car in a small reservoir, the driver apparently steering there in desperation.

"What we've seen, I think, is that people didn't have enough time, in some cases," Victoria Police Commissioner Christine Nixon told a news conference. "We're finding (bodies) on the side of roads, in cars that crashed."

But there were also extraordinary tales of survival.

One man leapt into his pool to escape the flames as they roared over his house, leaving it unscarred but razing his neighbor's. Another woman sheltered with her children in a wombat burrow as the worst of the fire passed.

Mark Strubing took refuge in a drainage pipe as his property outside Kinglake burned.

"We jumped in the car and we were only literally just able to outrun this fire. It was traveling as fast as the wind," Strubing told Nine Network television news.

He said he and a companion rolled around in the water at the bottom to wet their clothing as the flames started licking the pipe: "How we didn't burn I don't know."

Elsewhere in Kinglake, Jack Barber fled just ahead of the flames with his wife and a neighbor, driving in two cars packed with birth certificates, insurance documents, two cats, four kittens and a dog.

"We had a fire plan," he said Monday. "The plan was to get the hell out of there before the flames came."

With their escape route blocked by downed power lines and a tree, they took shelter first at a school, then — when that burned — in an exposed cricket ground ringed by trees, where they found five others.

"All around us was 100-foot (30-meter) flames ringing the oval, and we ran where the wind wasn't. It was swirling all over the place," Barber said. "For three hours, we dodged the wind."

The Victoria Country Fire Service said some 850 square miles (2,200 square kilometers) were burned out.

More than a dozen fires still burned uncontrollably across the state, though conditions were much cooler than on Saturday, when the wind surged and changed direction quickly time and again, fanning the blazes and making their direction utterly unpredictable from minute to minute.

Local media had been issuing warnings in the days leading up to the weekend, but many people guarding their homes with backyard hoses would have been outside when the wind changed, and thus could have missed the new warnings.

Jim Andrews, senior meteorologist at accuweather.com, said the combination of record high heat, high winds, gusts and low humidity created a perfect storm scenario for the fires. "I cannot fathom in my mind anything more, hellish, firewise," he said.

"Last Saturday we had the most intense fire weather conditions we have had in forecast history," David Packham, a research fellow in climatology at the School of Geography & Environmental Science at Melbourne's Monash University, said in an e-mail to journalists on Monday. He said the heat and a recent lack of rain made it clear days before the weekend that "conditions were in place for a disaster to occur."

At least 750 homes were destroyed Saturday, the Victoria Country Fire Service said.

Officials said both the tolls of human life and property would almost certainly rise as they reached deeper into the disaster zone, and forecasters said temperatures would rise again later in the week, posing a risk of further flare-ups.

Police Commissioner Nixon said investigators had strong suspicions that at least one of the deadly blazes — known as the Churchill fire after a ruined town — was deliberately set. And it could not be ruled out for other fires. She cautioned against jumping to conclusions.

The country's top law officer, Attorney General Robert McClelland, said people found to have deliberately set fires could face murder charges. Murder can carry a life sentence.

Police sealed off Maryville, a town destroyed by another fire, with checkpoints, telling residents who fled and news crews they could not enter because there were still bodies in the streets. Armed officers moved through the shattered landscape taking notes, pool news photographs showed.

John Handmer, a wildfire safety expert at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, said research had shown that people in the path of a blaze must get out early or stay inside until the worst has past.

"Fleeing at the last moment is the worst possible option," he said. "Sadly, this message does not seem to have been sufficiently heeded this weekend with truly awful consequences in Victoria."

Even if a house is set ablaze, it will burn more slowly and with less intensity than a wildfire and residents have a better chance of escape, he said.

Victoria state Premier John Brumby on Monday announced a commission would be held to examine all aspects of the fires, including warning policies.

"I think our policy has served us well in what I call normal conditions. These were unbelievable circumstances," Brumby said on Australian Broadcasting Corp. television.

Blazes have been burning for weeks across several states in southern Australia. A long-running drought in the south — the worst in a century — had left forests extra dry and Saturday's fire conditions in Victoria were said to be the worst ever in Australia.

In New South Wales state on Monday, a 31-year-old man appeared in court charged with arson in connection with a wildfire that burned north of Sydney over the weekend. No loss of life was reported there. He faces up to 10 years in prison.

The country's deadliest fires before the current spate killed 75 people in 1983. In 2006, nine people died on South Australia's Eyre Peninsula.

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Associated Press writer Carley Petesch in New York contributed to this report.

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