Harrowing images as bushfire toll stands at 135

They're among the most harrowing images to emerge from the Victorian bushfires, clusters of charred vehicles on scorched roads, the occupants killed trying to get away.

Many of the 135 people so far confirmed dead perished this way, but the chances of them outrunning the firestorms at the last minute were never good.

The dangers they faced were too great: car crashes caused by thick walls of smoke; breakdowns caused by the intense conditions; the silent killer known as radiant heat; heart attacks; blazing trees falling across roads.

It's impossible to say yet how the people in those clusters of cars died, but an expert says images of cars clustered together suggest many drivers crashed in the appalling conditions.


In Tuesday's Herald newspaper: An inside account of escaping the bushfires


"The one we've seen a fair bit over the past 48 hours is smoke-related motor vehicle accidents.

This is when people try to drive through very smokey areas or through fire itself, and they've ended up running off the road, or hit a tree," said Inspector Ben Shepherd, of the NSW Rural Fire Services.

"This is when people have left at the last minute, and they drive down a road that they may have driven down every day of their life.

"But obviously with the stress, the smoke, the wind, the flames, they run off the road and end up hitting a tree or hitting another car."

More than 70 people died in the Kinglake fire, which has burnt through 220,000 hectares of the central highlands, north of Melbourne.

Disaster Victim Identification (DVI) Greg Hough said the identification process would take a long time as fatalities had occurred across the state.

He called on families to do what they could to help identify loved ones but conceded that in many cases "it will be done forensically".

There are 31 fires still raging throughout Victoria after record heat and wild winds set the state ablaze on Saturday.

All fire-devastated areas will be treated as crime scenes to determine if arson was involved, Victorian Police Commissioner Christine Nixon said.

Melbourne based news website theage.com.au reports a special police taskforce was today set-up to hunt suspected arsonists thought responsible for many of the fires.

A doctor treating burns victims at The Alfred hospital in Melbourne said the scale of the disaster was worse than the Bali bombings, which killed 202 people including 88 Australians.

Twenty serious burns patients have been admitted to The Alfred in 24 hours, all with burns to more than 30 percent of their bodies.

"This is by far the worst disaster I've ever been involved with," Dr De Villiers Smit told reporters.

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd described the arsonists as "mass murderers".

A clearly shaken Mr Rudd said the communities that have been wiped out by the infernos will be rebuilt.

"The nation should brace itself for a very challenging time ahead," he told the Nine Network.

Asked about the arsonists, he said: "What do you say about anyone like that - there are no words to describe it other than mass murder."

He added: "This is of a level of horror that few of us anticipated."

Mr Rudd said he had received offers of help from the British and New Zealand prime ministers and would be taking up the offer of 100 firefighters from New Zealand.

He said 600 army temporary accommodation units would be provided to house those left homeless by the fires while Centrelink would be making immediate cash payments to fire victims.

"These are just starts and I say this to the people of Victoria - Australia is with you and we're going to rebuild these communities with a combined national effort," he said.

At least 5000 people have been made homeless from the fires.

Scorched

Authorities counted more victims as they reached further into a huge zone scorched by blazes that ripped across Victoria state at the weekend.

The latest death toll surpasses the toll from the 1983 Ash Wednesday bushfires, in which 75 people died in Victoria and South Australia, and the Black Friday bushfires of 1939, which killed 71.

"Hell in all its fury has visited the good people of Victoria in the last 24 hours and many good people now lie dead, many others lie injured," Mr Rudd said on Sunday.

"This is an appalling tragedy for Victoria but because of that, it's an appalling tragedy for the nation, and Australia the country stands behind Victoria at this awful time."

As hospital workers likened the rush of burns victims to survivors of the Bali bombings, fire authorities told people still facing vast, wind-driven walls of flame that engines and rescue vehicles might not be able to reach them in time.

With hundreds of thousands of hectares of the state already incinerated, towns and homes were last night still under threat from bushfires raging towards them, and areas already razed are likely to remain at risk from embers and hot, windy days.

At least some of the fires are believed to be the work of arsonists, including some who authorities believe re-lit outbreaks contained by volunteer crews working in searing winds and temperatures above 40C.

"To think you could do that in those conditions when you knew that any fire you lit had the potential to cause severe losses and death, I think that's something that is just appalling," Victorian Emergency Services Minister Bob Cameron said.

Murder

Victoria state Premier John Brumby announced a Royal Commission yesterday as police and investigators sealed off destroyed towns and declared them to be crime scenes. A Royal Commission is among the highest-level investigations that can be called under Australian law.

Suspicions that the wildfires were deliberately set led police to declare crime scenes today in towns incinerated by blazes, while investigators moving into the charred landscape discovered more bodies.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, visibly upset during a television interview, reflected national disgust at the idea.

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

Police have sealed off at least two towns - Marysville and Kinglake - where dozens of deaths occurred - setting up roadside checkpoints and controlling access to the area.

Victoria Police Commissioner Christine Nixon said specialist fire investigators were on the ground at one fire site, in Churchill, east of Melbourne, and would go to others.

Kinglake is "where the most deaths are, but wherever a death has occurred we investigate that as a crime," Nixon said.

Anyone found guilty of lighting a wildfire that causes death faces 25 years in prison in Victoria.

To the north, New South Wales is now feeling the brutal onslaught of a heatwave that yesterday pushed temperatures into the 40s.

Fire crews, backed by bulldozers and aircraft, yesterday fought 60 bushfires, 10 of them raging out of control.

"The prospect of containing these fires is remote at best," Rural Fire Services Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons told ABC television.

On Saturday, a 3-year-old boy died in a house fire in Muswellbrook in the Hunter Valley.

New South Wales and South Australia have both sent units to help Victorian firefighters, but South Australian authorities warned that their crews would be pulled back by the end of the week as their state returned to a heatwave threatening fires of similar magnitude.

Mr Rudd has provided a A$10 million relief fund and ordered Army bulldozers in to help contain fires continuing to threaten Victoria.

- AAP, AP with Greg Ansley

- NZ Herald

New Zealand's Red Cross and Salvation Army are accepting donations for those affected by the fires in Victoria.

Red Cross: Donations can be made by visiting redcross.org.nz, calling 0900 33 200 to make an automatic $20 donation, sending a cheque to Australian Bushfire Appeal, Red Cross House, PO Box 12140, Thorndon, Wellington, 6144, or by visiting any Red Cross service centre.

Salvation Army: Donate online at salvationarmy.org.nz or post to The Salvation Army, PO Box 27001, Marion Square, Wellington, 6164.

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