WHITTLESEA, Australia Feb 9 – Troops and firefighters battled raging Australian wildfires on Monday that have left at least 126 people dead amid a landscape of charred homes, bodies and devastated communities.
The wildfires have become the deadliest in Australia’s history, destroying entire towns and wiping out families, but police believe some were started by arsonists whom Prime Minister Kevin Rudd accused of "mass murder".
Thirty-one fires were still burning in southeastern Victoria state, where all the deaths occurred, and nervous communities were on alert as the flames burnt all in their path at the whim of the winds.
They swept through some 3,000 square kilometres – an area larger than Luxembourg or nearly three times the size of Hong Kong – fed by tinder-box conditions after a prolonged heatwave.
A number of the smouldering ruins are now surrounded by crime scene tape as police probe whether arsonists were to blame.
"What do you say about anyone like that, there are no words to describe it other than mass murder," Rudd said.
"This is of a level of horror that few of us anticipated."
Tales of tragedy , fear and narrow escapes have transfixed the nation while images of the towering flames dominate television and newspapers.
In a home in the worst-hit town of Kinglake, north of the Victorian state capital Melbourne, the charred bodies of four children were found huddled with that of an adult, believed to be a parent.
Police identified the four as children from the size of their skulls, the Australian newspaper reported.
With Kinglake flattened, residents in the town of Yackandandah in Victoria’s northeast were nervously waiting to see if they would suffer the same fate.
"People are nervous, we are at the mercy of the weather, if things stay benign we should be okay," said businessman James Lacey.
"If we get southerly winds we might be in trouble. It’s a waiting game and I think that messes with people’s heads."
Residents had started packing up and schools were closed, he said.
Thousands of farm animals, pets and wild creatures have also perished in the flames.
Glenda Elliott, who runs the Kangaloola Wildlife Shelter near Yackandandah, said she was ready to pack the scores of native animals she cares for onto her pick-up truck and take them down a mine shaft as she did during a 2003 fire.
"We are on high alert, the fires are probably only five kilometres away," she told the national AAP news agency.
But for other people, it was already too late.
People died in their cars as they sought to escape the flames, smouldering wrecks on roads testimony to failed attempts to flee, while others were burnt to death in their homes.
Thousands of survivors are now jamming community halls, schools and other makeshift accommodation.
Many people from devastated towns such as Kinglake found refuge in nearby Whittlesea, where they hugged and cried as they swapped survival stories.
In neighbouring New South Wales state, two people have been charged with arson.
A 31-year-old man accused of lighting a blaze that burnt through about 200 hectares of bushland in Peats Ridge, north of Sydney, was due in court on Monday.
A 15-year-old boy who allegedly set off an explosive that started a small scrub fire in the Blue Mountains near Sydney on Sunday will appear in court next month.
Neither of those fires killed anybody, but police suspect arsonists were also behind some of the major fires in Victoria.
State police commissioner Christine Nixon said all bushfire areas will be treated as crime scenes to determine if arson was involved.
She cited a fire in the Gippsland Valley as probably deliberate.
"Our fire experts and our own investigators have suggested that the way that it happened, how fast that it happened, that there is good evidence to believe that it was lit," she said.
Forensic investigators have also begun work in the Kinglake area, where hundreds of homes were destroyed.
"Wherever a death has occurred, we investigate that as a crime," Nixon told ABC radio.