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Australian wildfires kill at least 35

The army is called in to help reinforce exhausted firefighters as uncontrolled blazes roar across Victoria state. The death toll is expected to rise.

February 08, 2009|Jennifer Bennett

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA — Wildfires roared through southeastern Australia on Saturday, killing at least 49 people and destroying homes, farmland and forests, officials said. The army was called in to help firefighters and volunteers battle the blazes.

Officials said the death toll could rise as fires continued burning out of control early today in the southern state of Victoria, in the country's worst wildfire disaster in years. At least 640 houses have been destroyed, officials said.

Police said most of the deaths occurred around the towns of Kinglake and Wandong, northeast of Melbourne, the state capital, and that crews are dealing with 60 fires in the state, Bloomberg News reported.

The biggest fire razed Kinglake, about 60 miles north of Melbourne. Damage also was very heavy in the town of Marysville; aerial video showed rubble where homes once stood.

Officials said that in one town people died as fires swept through their homes, and a family of six is believed to have died in their car.

Officials were still trying to reach many small towns, and there was concern that others may have perished.

More than 3,000 firefighters were working against the blazes, which had spread across the state. Some fires were close to Melbourne's northeastern suburbs, and the main power station for the city of 4 million was threatened.

One fire official said some 460 square miles had been burned by early today and estimated that hundreds of homes had been lost.

"Hell in all its fury has visited the good people of Victoria in the last 24 hours," Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said.

The premier of Victoria, John Brumby, called the disaster a "deeply sad and shocking tragedy -- an incredible and terrible loss."

Temperatures Saturday reached as high as 117 degrees after a weeklong heat wave.

Brumby said army troops would be deployed to help the thousands of exhausted firefighters and volunteers.

Police suspected that some of the fires had been deliberately set and said it would take days to get all of them under control.

In the state of New South Wales, 59 wildfires were raging, and officials told residents to prepare for the worst.

Police officers are beginning to move into burned-out areas. Officials are concerned that there may be more bodies in the remains of homes and cars.

In 1983, Australia's deadliest fires on record killed 75 people and destroyed more than 3,000 homes in Victoria and South Australia.

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Bennett is a special correspondent.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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