Officials fear 300 may have died as crews still fight Victoria bush fires

 

AUTHORITIES FEAR that up to 300 people may have died in Australia’s devastating bush fires as emergency workers struggle to control 25 fires still blazing across the state of Victoria.

The official death toll was 181 last night, but scores of people are still missing and presumed dead.

More than 900 homes have been destroyed and 7,000 survivors have registered for Red Cross assistance. The fires, which have burned through more than 3,000 square kilometres, razed entire towns.

Prime minister Kevin Rudd returned to the national capital Canberra yesterday after spending two days with fire victims and volunteers.

He said the towns would be rebuilt “brick by brick, school by school and community hall by community hall”.

As Victoria’s police established taskforce Phoenix to investigate how the fires started and how many were deliberately lit, Mr Rudd said arson is incomprehensible and evil.

“There is no excuse for this. None at all,” he said.

“As I said yesterday it is simply murder on a grand scale, let us attend to this unfinished business of the nation and come to grips with this evil thing.”

The town of Kinglake is one of those almost entirely destroyed and for some victims shock is now turning to anger.

Ross Buchanan sought out a reporter from the state-owned, non-commercial ABC local radio to tell the story of his tragic loss.

“I unfortunately lost two children, Neeve and Mackenzie, nine and 15,” he said. “I decided to drop them around to my in-laws, to be safe.”

After going home to secure the safety of his house, Mr Buchanan returned to pick up his children only to find they had perished in another blaze.

“My mother-in-law is in intensive care with burns in her body from trying to go back into the house,” he said. “Lots of people tried to help so much, risking their lives.” Mr Buchanan broke down as he spoke about his daughters.

“They were just the best . . . they were the best.”

He lashed out at the commercial media’s coverage of the disaster. “I don’t know how we’re going to rebuild . . . all the commercial television stations, radio stations use some of your advertising money to get helicopters to drop off supplies,” he said.

“You’re making good money out of this sad story. Kinglake is stronger than you will ever be.”

Irishman Paul Scroope, who works for the Australian Red Cross blood service, said he has never seen anything like the devastation of these fires. “I was here in 1983 when 47 people died in the Ash Wednesday fires, but this is much worse,” he said.

Mr Scroope welcomed the overwhelming numbers of people donating thousands of litres of blood and millions of dollars to the Red Cross in recent days.

Canadian singer Leonard Cohen, who is touring Australia, is one of those who made a large donation to bush fire victims. He, his touring support act Paul Kelly and their concert promoters have jointly donated Aus$200,000 (€102,000).