More Than 40 Feared Dead as Bushfires Sweep Australia

More than 40 people are feared dead and at least 100 homes have been destroyed in Australia's worst bushfires in a quarter-century, prompting the deployment of the army to help firefighters in southern Victoria state, Bloomberg reported.

State police confirmed 36 deaths, with many occurring around the towns of Kinglake and Wandong, about 65 kilometers (40 miles) northeast of the state capital Melbourne. More than 400 fires struck yesterday and crews are battling 10 large blazes today, according to the Country Fire Authority's Web site. More bodies are likely to be recovered as fires are brought under control, police said.

"My concern is that the number will go quite a bit higher than 40," deputy police commissioner Kieran Walshe told Sky News. "Most likely we're going to have to wait for morning until we can do a proper search" and establish the toll, he said in a televised news conference. It appeared a number of the fires may have been deliberately lit, he said.

Two weeks of record temperatures and hot northerly gales across the southeast of the continent yesterday made conditions the worst since February 1983, when 75 people in Victoria and neighboring South Australia died in the nation's Ash Wednesday fires. The town of Marysville has been almost completely destroyed, and about 50 homes were destroyed around Bendigo, state Premier John Brumby said.

"This is not over yet," Brumby said at a media conference at Kinglake, the ABC reported. "It's a tragic day, a tragic weekend in our history. The impacts on families are just devastating. I feel devastated."

Southerly Front

Temperatures in Victoria have plunged after reaching a record 46.4 degrees Celsius (115 degrees Fahrenheit) in Melbourne yesterday, as a southerly front moved across Australia's southeast today, changing the direction of many of the fires.

The largest blaze is in the Kinglake, Kilmore area, where two fires joined yesterday and where most of the deaths occurred. About 120,000 hectares (296,000 acres) are burning and the very large perimeter means it will be "days and days" before crews will be able to contain the fire, Stuart Ord, spokesman for Victoria state's environment department, told Sky News.

"Hundreds" of homes have probably been destroyed across the state and more remain at risk today, he said.

The dead reported so far include at least two children, and have been found in both cars and in homes, Victoria Police's Walshe said. Many are likely to have been overtaken by the rapid pace of the fires yesterday, fuelled by winds of more than 60 kilometers an hour, Ord said.

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