Survivors tell of Australian bushfire horror

SYDNEY, Feb 8, 2009 (AFP) - Survivors of Australia's deadly bushfires on Sunday described how a thick blanket of black ash blotted out the sun, leaving only a "horrible orange glow" as flames bore down on their homes.

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd (C) and Victorian Premier John Brumby (L) listen to Police Commissioner Christine Nixon (R) talk to the media at Kangaroo Ground, north of Melbourne, on Feb. 8 (Photo: AFP)

Residents in the worst-hit areas northwest of Melbourne, where most of the 65 fatalities occurred, told how they lost loved ones to the flames and desperately tried to help the injured, including children.

Entire townships were razed to the ground, with television footage showing the picturesque hamlet of Marysville reduced to smoking ruins.

"Marysville, which was one the loveliest townships in Victoria, if not Australia, has just about been wiped out," said pastor Ivor Jones, whose own home in the town was destroyed.

Victoria state's Country Fire Authority said only one building was left standing in the popular tourist hamlet.

Burnt out property lines the main street of Kinglake where scores of houses were destroyed and 29 people died, north of Melbourne, on Feb. 8 (Photo: AFP)

At least 640 homes have been destroyed, more than 500 around the town of Kinglake, north of Melbourne where shops, petrol stations and schools were also destroyed.

At least a dozen people are believed to have died in the town.

Residents who fled ahead of the fire were kept out by police roadblocks when they tried to return Sunday.

Chris Harvey, who has lived in the town for 22 years and lost his home, said he believed they were being held back because of the horrors that awaited them.

"There's a five-car pile-up on the road into town, all the cars are burnt," Harvey said.

"It's going to look like Hiroshima I tell you, it's going to look like a nuclear bomb. There's animals dead all over the road."

Harvey's daughters Victoria and Ali, both aged in their 20s, told of a local businessman who lost two of his children as the family tried to flee.

"He apparently went to put his kids in the car, put them in, turned around to go grab something from the house, then his car was on fire with his kids in it and they burnt," Victoria said.

Witnesses told of trees "exploding" with the intensity of the heat and recounted seeing burnt-out cars abandoned as their owners scrambled to reach safety.

Strathewen resident Mary Avola escaped the flames but her husband of 43 years, Peter, died after they fled their home in separate cars trying to reach a nearby sporting oval.

"He was behind me in another car. He was behind me for a while and we tried to reach the oval but the gates were locked," Avola told Melbourne's Herald Sun website.

"He just told me to go and that's the last time I saw him." Authorities have found his body.

Marie Jones said she was staying at a friend's house in Kinglake, where at least 12 people perished, when a badly burnt man arrived with his infant daughter.

She said the man told her his wife and other child had been killed.

"He was so badly burnt," she told the Melbourne Age's website.

"He had skin hanging off him everywhere and his little girl was burnt, but not as badly as her dad, and he just came down and he said 'Look, I've lost my wife, I've lost my other kid, I just need you to save (my daughter).'"

Callers to national radio described how they were huddling in swimming pools as flames raced towards their homes, and of how children were terrified by the powerful winds, furnace-like heat and an eerie orange glow dominating the sky.

"It was so scary, my little girl, she's five years of age and... she's emotionally traumatised by what's happened today -- the horrible orange glow," said a caller who identified himself as Roger from Traralgon South.

Jay Cherie described her family's nightmare drive from Kinglake to safety though a raging inferno.

"When the power went out I madly started to try and pack some things. My husband came running into the house and said, 'grab the kids, grab the cat, we've got to get out'," she said.

In the car "we had fire coming in on the right-hand side of us on a paddock and we had houses to the left of us on fire.

"My little girl was saying to me, 'Mum am I going to see my friends again?', she also said to me, 'Mum am I going to live tomorrow?'."
 
                  A list of major Australian bushfire disasters

Feb 7-8, 2009: 65 dead, 640 homes lost in fires in rural Victoria, mainly northwest of Melbourne

Jan 10 2005: Nine dead and 110 injured as fires sweep through the Eyre Peninsula, South Australia

Jan 18, 2003: Four dead, more than 100 injured and 500 homes destroyed in Canberra

Dec 24, 2001 - Jan 7, 2002: 109 homes destroyed, but no fatalities in Blue Mountains, Hunter Valley and western Sydney suburbs in New South Wales

Dec 2, 1998 - Five firefighters killed at Linton, Victoria.

January, 1994: Four dead, 200 homes destroyed when fires hit Sydney's northern, western and southern outskirts

Feb 16, 1983: 75 dead, 2,300 homes destroyed in 'Ash Wednesday' bushfires in Victoria and South Australia

Feb 7, 1967: 62 dead, 1,300 homes destroyed in Hobart, Tasmania

Jan 8, 1969: 22 dead, 230 homes lost in rural Victoria

Jan 14 - Feb 14, 1944: 32 dead, 700 homes lost in central and western Victoria

Dec 22, 1944: 10 dead in grassfires in Wangaratta, Victoria

Jan 13, 1939: 71 dead, 700 homes destroyed in 'Black Friday' fires in Victoria

February-March, 1922: 60 dead in Gippsland, eastern Victoria, 31 in a single day, Feb 14

Source: AFP

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