"84 dead" - and fears for more as fires grip Australia

The enormity of south-east Australia's forest fires was revealed Sunday, with 84 people dead and grave fears for many more, dpa reported.

Saturday's inferno is now the worst in the nation's history, surpassing the Black Friday blaze in 1939 that claimed 71 lives and 1983's Ash Wednesday that killed 75.

More than 750 houses have been lost, 200,000 hectares of forest blackened and the town of Kinglake obliterated and 55 of its residents dead.

"We looked over and there was a wall of flames looking at us and everything went pitch black," Joanne Fisher said of the Kinglake conflagration that took her house and belongings. "I've never seen anything like it in my life. You see this on TV - it doesn't happen to you."

Melbourne's Alfred Hospital, the biggest in the state of Victoria, was struggling to cope with people badly burned when, in cars or on foot, they failed to outrun the approaching fire.

"There are apparently cars along the roadside just abandoned," Alfred trauma specialist John Coleridge said. "Unfortunately they'll probably find many more people, many of whom may not survive."

The call has gone out for refrigerated containers to be used as temporary morgues to preserve bodies yet to be identified.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd called in the army to help with the firefighting and to help shift smouldering tree trunks that block roads, preventing ambulances getting through to the injured.

"Out there, it's been hell on earth," Victoria state Premier John Brumby said in a statement. "The scale of the tragedy defies comprehension."

In the mountain resort of Marysville, home to 1,000 people, local reporter Jane Cowan said only a handful of buildings remained standing.

"There are stories of households that sheltered three families in one house, of gas bottles from nearby houses exploding and then piercing their houses and then those houses catching fire as well," Cowan told national broadcaster ABC.

"A woman who was found in her car this morning - obviously was trying to escape (but) she didn't make it - she had her crockery on the seat beside her in the car," she added.

Traumatised survivors tell of cattle on fire and blackened cars with charred bodies inside. Families have been rent by death because some stayed to fight the flames while others fled.

Brumby said that strong winds and high temperatures created tinderbox conditions a volunteer army of 30,000 firefighters backed by 37 water-bombing aircraft simply could not match.

In less than 12 hours one fire raced 40 kilometres through eucalyptus forests, stopping only at the sea shore.

There are 26 fires still burning, 12 of them outside the treches dug to impede their progress.

"Some of these fires just weren't possible to control," Brumby said. "You've had firefighters that were literally facing flames that were four storeys high."

Melbourne recorded its hottest February day on Saturday, with the temperature above 46 degrees.

Brumby and other officials had warned of a possible repeat of the Ash Wednesday blazes that razed 2,800 houses.

"It's just a day, I hope in my lifetime is never repeated," Brumby said.

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