Australian bushfires: Nearly 100 dead in deadliest ever blaze
Australia's worst ever bushfires have left nearly 100 people dead and hundreds homeless as blazes continue to rage amid fears the death-toll could rise even further.
By Bonnie Malkin in Sydney
Last Updated: 2:49PM GMT 08 Feb 2009
As authorities warned the number of dead, including one of Australia's most loved newsreaders, could climb higher, Gordon Brown pledged British assistance to the devastated country.
More than 750 homes have been lost and several townships razed as nine fires devastated towns and farmland in the state of Victoria.
Officials are continuing the grim search for bodies in blackened and collapsed houses and charred cars as extreme temperatures and strong winds fan the flames.
The weekend of terror, already been dubbed "Black Saturday", has left the country in a numb state of shock.
A Number 10 spokesman said the Prime Minister had offered his sympathies.
"The Prime Minister spoke to Kevin Rudd this morning to extend our sympathies to the Australian people, especially those families who have been affected by this tragedy," he said.
"He praised Kevin Rudd's leadership at this very difficult time, and said that the UK stood ready to provide any assistance that the Australian Government wanted."
Police have confirmed the number of dead had far eclipsed the toll from Ash Wednesday in 1983 when 75 people died in two states.
The tragedy, in February 1983 was previously Australia's worst bushfire tragedy, as it swept across Victoria and South Australia.
Authorities suspect arsonists are responsible for lighting or relighting some of the fires.
There is little information about the locations of the victims, but 29 are known to have died at Kinglake and four each at St Andrews and Wandong, in the country's south-east
Among the dead were Brian Naylor, a veteran television newsreader, who lived in the fire-ravaged Kinglake West area, and his wife.
Several people were killed as they tried to escape the flames in their cars.
At least six bodies were found in one car at Kinglake and one woman's body was found in another vehicle, with crockery on the seat beside her.
Police have not yet given the gender or ages of the victims, but one Kinglake resident said three members of the same family, believed to include a 14-year-old girl, a nine-year-old boy and an uncle, had died in the same house.
Keiran Walshe, Victoria's deputy fire commissioner, warned that more children were likely to be among the casualties.
The extent of the damage has left the state, and the country, in deep shock.
John Brumby, the premier of Victoria, broke down while talking to the media about the number of people who had suffered severe burns.
He described the bushfires as "a monster that couldn't be controlled" and said the state had experienced "hell on earth".
Kevin Rudd, the prime minister, announced emergency funding for the state and has offered to send in the army to help firefighters.
"Hell in all its fury had visited ... many good people lie dead," he said.
News of the escalating death toll came as horrifying eyewitness accounts of the fires started to emerge.
Residents of the worst-hit regions told of how a thick blanket of black ash blotted out the sun, leaving a 'horrible orange glow'.
Others described trees "exploding" and roads "peppered with burnt out cars".
Many people abandoned their homes to shelter in their swimming pools and dams as the flames closed in around them.
One Kinglake resident said "it rained fire".
Another witness, in Marysville, described the town as "a warzone, like a bomb had been dropped".
Strathewen resident Mary Avola said her husband of 43 years, Peter Avola, was among those killed.
"He was behind me for a while and we tried to reach the oval but the gates were locked," she told Melbourne's Herald Sun.
"He just told me to go and that's the last time I saw him."
Firefighter Richard Hoyle described the scene as "a holocaust".
"The road is riddled with burnt-out cars involved in multiple collisions and debris," he said.
A cool change is now helping firefighters tackle the flames, but Mr Brumby warned the only thing that could put the fires out was rain.
Bruce Esplin, emergency services commissioner, said nature had given Victoria "a beating of unimaginable proportions" and warned worse could be to come as the baking summer continues.
Wildfires are a natural annual event in Australia, but the ongoing drought, warm winds and recent spate of extremely hot weather have combined to create the deadly conditions.
Bushfires have killed more than 250 people in Australia in the last 40 years.