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Residents Return To Fire-destroyed Australian Town

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(AP) The school, the post office, the pub, the grocery store, the bakery, the gas station. All gone. So are as many as one in five of Marysville's 500 residents _ killed when one of Australia's deadly wildfires raced through the town a week ago.

About 200 of the town's survivors _ those who could bear to look _ returned Saturday on a bus tour organized by the authorities to see their community for the first time since fleeing for their lives.

"It's just ash. Ash and tin," said Simon Hudson, 42, who ran a bed and breakfast in Marysville.

Hudson said he felt sick to his stomach as he toured the town, which has been sealed off for almost a week. Authorities have been collecting bodies and sifting through the ruins for clues to the arson they suspect may be the cause of the blaze.

"We lost our friends, we lost our community, everything," he said.

Marysville, the "Mystic Village" of tourist brochures, a haven for trekkers in the spring and a coffee stop on the way to Victoria state's ski fields during the winter, is now a crime scene.

Harley Ronalds lost her 72-year-old grandfather in the fire. She gave a wry smile as she recalled how stubborn he was _ he would not leave the house until the last minute, letting his wife leave but preferring to fight the fire as long as he could. His body was found next to his car, the burned carcass of his dog beside him.

"The only time I really fell apart was when I saw Grandpa's house," said Ronalds, 17. "I screamed and cried and couldn't look at the house and his car sitting there. That destroyed me. I don't know how to take it."

One dozen buildings are left standing in Marysville, out of 250. Towering oak trees still line the main street, but are bare of leaves that were seared off as the flames swept through.

Some 400 blazes raged across Victoria on Feb. 7 as record temperatures and blasting winds sent firestorms racing at up to 60 mph (120 kph) through forests, farms and towns. They burned all before them _ more than 1,500 square miles (3,900 square kilometers) of land, more than 1,800 homes _ and claimed 181 lives and counting. Some 7,500 people are homeless.

About 200 people took the solemn tour Saturday, leaving from Buxton, another fire-scarred town about seven miles north (11 kilometers) of Marysville.

They could not stay because police are treating the entire town as a crime scene. They were not allowed off the buses, and chaplains and counselors were on board to help them cope with what they were seeing.

Police have charged one suspect with arson in connection to the statewide fires and put him in protective custody, hiding his identity to protect him from possible reprisals. The fire he is alleged to have started is not the one that destroyed Marysville, but police suspect an arsonist there, too.

The official Marysville death toll stands at eight people _ but officials stopped putting out individual town death tolls several days ago. Authorities say the actual number killed in Marysville may be closer to 100.

Police say it will be at least two weeks before residents can return and move freely around town.

Marysville was founded as a gold town in the 1850s. By the 1920s it was a favorite destination for honeymooners, and today its forests, rivers and waterfalls make it a popular weekend or day retreat from the state capital, Melbourne, just 57 miles (92 kilometers) south.

In spring and autumn, tourists came to admire the changing foliage. In winter, families came to toboggan on its hills or ski at a nearby resort. Cafes and restaurants lined its main street, and there were more hotels and B&Bs than there were residential beds.

Ashraf Doos said the sign to his popular Marysville Patisserie was all that remained of his life there.

"It's all in the ground. It's far worse than we thought," a tearful Doos said, his arm tight around his young son. "I just can't believe it There is no more Marysville. It's a black day."

Residents spoke fondly of the river that ran through town, the majestic oaks, Keppel's Hotel where they met for beers, Fragas Cafe where they chatted over coffee.

"It's like a big family there," said Terry Ross, 55, a third-generation Marysville resident who recently built a home in nearby Granton, which was also nearly wiped out in the fire. "Everyone knows each other. All the places I knew as I grew up there were burned to the ground."

On the bus ride, some people quietly sobbed, others cracked jokes to break the tension, said David Barton whose home and antique shop on the main street are now blackened ruins.

"Some blokes shared some good Australian humor, telling each other, 'Your joint's looking a bit shabby, mate,'" Barton said. "But there's just nothing there. It's a thing of disbelief."

A few hours before the firefront appeared, he said he was sitting in his sun room with his wife and a friend, drinking tea and chatting. There were no clouds, no smoke.

"To think that six hours later the entire town of Marysville would be razed to the ground, it's just inconceivable," Barton said.

Barton, a Victoria State Emergency Service worker who was among the last in the town to leave, sped to Buxton the night of the fire.

"I stood on the road and saw this churning, burbling black mass 300 feet high with this big red core to it. There were burning branches, bark falling out of the sky and it was hard to breathe," he said.

"The only way of surviving it was to not be there."

Despite the horror, Marysville's people are already planning to rebuild.

"I think the going back has been incredibly important, said Patricia Beggs, her voice breaking. "I couldn't have stood and watched it burn, but I felt I need to see it and know that it's gone. Now we can move forward."

(Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

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