It was where they found the bodies that brought home the full horror of the fires. In one house police found four children huddled together. They knew they were children by the size of their skulls. Near a road they found the body of a man who appeared to have crashed his Harley Davidson motorcycle and then died as he tried to outrun the flames. Six died in a multi-car pileup as drivers tried to avoid falling trees and raging fires. One man died on a sports-field perhaps believing that the short grass would halt the flames. Dozens left it too late to flee thinking they could fight the flames and then get away at the last minute. Many were found huddled together in the smoldering ruins that had been their homes.
"It's a level of horror few of us have anticipated," Australia's Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said on a national television program. "The nation needs to brace itself for what I believe will be a very challenging time ahead. It's very tough and uncertain out there at the moment." (See pictures of Australia's deadly wildfires.)
By Monday night the death toll in Australia's worst ever natural disaster had risen to 131. That number will rise as police and fire crews go deeper into the disaster zone and uncover further horrors. More than 750 homes have been razed and over 770 sq. mi. (2000 sq. km.) in the southeastern state of Victoria have been burned. "We know tragically many lives have been lost," Victorian premier (governor) John Brumby said in a television address to the state. "We have grave concerns for many more. Out there it has been hell on earth. It's one of the most tragic events in Victoria's history."
Australians had gone to bed on Saturday night knowing that dozens of fires raged across southern Victoria. They knew, too, that at least a dozen lives had been lost. But, like the authorities, they had no idea of the scale of the disaster that had been unfolding over the previous few hours. Fueled by 115 F degree (46 C) heat and powerful northerly winds, the fires were laying waste to houses, schools, whole towns. On Sunday morning, as the weeping, blackened survivors emerged from the ruins telling of horrific scenes of bodies dead beside the roads and of missing relatives and neighbors, the full extent of the disaster began to dawn.
The worst hit areas were between 35 miles and 60 miles (60 km to 100 km) northeast of Melbourne. There, the town of Kinglake lost 20 of its residents, St Andrews, 12, Marysville eight, and Steels Creek seven. It happened quickly. Marysville motel owner Christine Adams says that the only warning was a red glow in the sky. "We sent the guests packing and put a few things in the car and then we saw the flames. It was like a huge fireball that came over the hill. It was moving very fast and we grabbed a few more things and headed out of town in a convoy," says Adams whose hotel burned to the ground.
They were the lucky ones. Falling trees later blocked the road out of town trapping 50 residents overnight. "They got caught and they spent the night trapped in Gallipoli Park," says Adams. "There have been a lot of casualties but we don't have any idea." As information dripped in, it was hard to discern between fears, hopes and the truth "There are so many rumors," says Adams. "You hear somebody has died and then they walk through the door. We are on an emotional roller coaster at the moment."
Many of the worst stories are all too real. The Harvey family fled Kingslake ahead of the flames but told of how the children of a local businessman had perished in the blaze. "He [the businessman] apparently went to put the kids in the car, put them in, turned around to grab something from the house, then his car was on fire with his kids in it and they burnt," Victoria Harvey told reporters.
Several of the worst hit small towns remain cordoned off and surrounded by roadblocks. Police are treating the areas as crime scenes and are investigating arson as a possible cause of some of the fires. Of the possibility that arsonists could have started some of the fires, Prime Minister Rudd said: "There's no other words to describe it other than mass murder."
The death toll from these bushfires eclipses the 1983 "Ash Wednesday" fires in Victoria and South Australia which claimed 73 people. Victorian fire researcher David Packham was so concerned with the looming conditions last week that he issued a warning about the extreme danger of bushfires. He says now that a series of factors lined up to produce the "worst fire conditions" he has ever seen. Those conditions include extreme heat, dry winds, lightning strikes and arson, and vast amounts of fuel which should have been burned off under controlled conditions by authorities he says. "I woke up one night at 3am in the week before the fires and I thought things were not well. I was watching the weather and I did up a fire awareness notice which got published in some of the papers and sent around," says Packham an honorary research fellow at Monash University. "I did the calculations and you can work out the flame heights of a fire and there were some scary figures. Flames up to 60 to 70 meters [2-to 230 feet] high."
The fierce intensity of the fires is probably why so many people died. "The fire intensity was such that it exceeded the fires of 1939 [in which 71 people in Victoria died]," says Packham. "It was probably double that in intensity. If you are outside, the chances of you surviving are almost nil." That's because the heat radiation "can be so hot that it will cause death in a second or so. It's a shock to the body. The body completely fails. The lungs can sear inside and you die of asphyxiation as your lungs produce fluid."
Premier Brumby has announced a Royal Commision of Inquiry into the fires. "We want to make sure that every single issue, ever single factor, everything in relation to the horrific weekend, to the horrific fires on Saturday is investigated and uncovered," he told reporters as he toured the fire ravaged areas. Official advice to stay and defend their homes or leave before the fire became dangerous had failed to save people, he acknowledged.