Key Points:

As the toll from the Victorian bushfires climbs towards 200, Australia is trying to understand how so many could perish.

The adequacy of alerts, safety advice and fuel management policies are coming under fire as the sheer, brutal, scale of destruction is absorbed.

Other issues, many recognised by inquiries into earlier disasters but never - or not fully - remedied are also surfacing as Victoria prepares for a royal commission into the still-burning fires.

The commission will almost certainly develop into a political firefight. Debate has already begun over official advice to either properly prepare and stay to defend your property, or flee, and rival sides are gearing up for new bouts in long-running battles over fuel reduction and the management of state and national forests.

But there is still no simple answer to the question: why so many deaths?

Australians are well used to bushfires - they are an inevitable part of life in the country. The degree of risk is known well in advance as summers warm, and warnings and advice are repeated almost daily.

Even now, dozens of towns in Victoria are on alert for ember attack as changing winds cause flare-ups.

Wind has re-ignited a fire in the Bunyip State Park, and it is now threatening the town of Gembrook.

The other big concern for firefighters is the Murrindindi-Yea fire, which has three separate fronts threatening towns.

A state environment department spokesman said the wind was causing outbreaks of fire to flare ahead of the main front.

He said strong south and southwesterly winds had been forecast.

"Communities around the fire areas need to remain vigilant," he said. "The whole state is very dry, and wind becomes very important once the fire has started."

There was no doubt that this would be a summer of appalling danger.

A decade of drought has dehydrated southeastern Australia, and what rain did fall increased the growth of underbrush, in turn baked dry by the record spell of 40C days that roasted Victoria, South Australia and New South Wales.

Before the weekend, state Premier John Brumby prophetically warned Victoria that it faced fires potentially worse than the 1983 Ash Wednesday holocaust that killed 47 in his state and 28 in South Australia.

Fire and emergency services, with hundreds of trucks, bulldozers and aircraft linked by sophisticated communications systems, were on extreme alert.

Victorians were warned to prepare their properties for the worst, to be ready to fight or flee, and to listen for urgent warnings. But since Ash Wednesday there have been important changes in Victoria.

Rural areas and bushland have been flooded by an exodus of lifestylers seeking relief and peace from the big cities. Many moved to idyllic country towns, or built homes in hills heavily covered in eucalypt trees.

Researchers believe most of these migrants are less prepared than previous generations for fire.

Professor Mark Adams of the Bushfire Co-operative Research Centre said that rural families were often prepared to fight fires with equipment they used in their everyday work, but people today relied more on the state's Country Fire Authority to battle the flames.

These people might also be less psychologically prepared than bush veterans for the terror of walls of flame up to 40m high raging at breakneck speed towards them.

University of Tasmania psychology professor Douglas Patron told ABC radio that in most at-risk communities, levels of preparedness to deal with fires were low.

Many buildings could not resist fire, either because they were built before design and technology gave some defence against flames, or they were constructed without taking enough note of it.

The nature of the fires and the country they crossed was lethal.

Many began in remote and inaccessible country, gathering size, density and speed before exploding out, driven by searing winds into a scale beyond control.

As they roared towards town they shot embers and flames ahead of them, leapfrogging at an appalling pace and setting alight to homes and buildings that may otherwise have escaped.

Survivors repeatedly told of the staggering speed of destruction.

Many broke and ran, and died as a result.

Advice adopted universally in Australia warns people to decide well in advance whether to defend their homes or evacuate long before the fire approaches.

"The clear evidence is that the most dangerous place to be is on the road," Country Fire Authority chief officer Russell Rees said.

But the advice is now under attack and will be reviewed by the royal commission.

Failure in the emergency warning system have also been reported.

The Australian national newspaper said yesterday that in some cases the urgent official warnings, passed on by local ABC radio stations, would be only minutes ahead of the flames.

Kinglake and St Andrews had been razed before they were mentioned in radio updates of towns in danger.

Inevitably, the royal commission will also hear of mistakes, bad decisions, resource and equipment failures, underfunding, poor land management policies and a range of other issues.

The adequacy of fuel reduction measures, and conflict between conservationists and rural landowners over constraints on controlled burning and fire trails, is already being angrily debated.