14 Killed In Australian Wildfires

Saturday, February 7th 2009, 9:06 am
By: News 9

(AP) Raging wildfires swept through southeastern Australia on Saturday as gale force winds and scorching temperatures combined into a deadly inferno that killed at least 14 people, officials said.

Victoria state deputy police commissioner Kieran Walshe said dozens of homes had been destroyed in the state and that officials feared that the death toll could ultimately be "in the 40s."

Temperatures around 117 degrees Fahrenheit and high winds spurred dozens of fires across three states on Saturday, and tens of thousands of firefighters were struggling to contain blazes late into the night.

Walshe said all the deaths happened in a huge blaze in northwestern Victoria - including six people in one car.

A cool change began sweeping through Victoria late Saturday, but along with falling temperatures came choppier winds that inflamed fires already burning and made them more unpredictable.

Fires also raged Saturday in New South Wales and South Australia states, but blazes there were largely contained or burning away from residential areas.

Wildfires are common during the Australian summer, as rising temperatures bake forest land tinder dry and blustering winds fan embers. Some 60,000 fires occur each year, and about half are deliberately lit or suspicious, government research says. Lightning strikes and human activity such as use of machinery near dry brush cause the others.

Backyard barbecues and using power tools was banned Saturday in high-risk areas.

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