Whittlesea, Australia Disaster teams found charred bodies on roadsides and in crashed cars — grim signs of the futile attempt to flee raging wildfires fed by 60 mph winds, record heat and drought that caught even fire-savvy Australians by surprise.
As the death toll rose today to 173 in Australia’s worst wildfire disaster, suspicions that some of the 400 blazes were caused by arson led police to declare crime scenes in some of the incinerated towns, Victoria police said.
The fires near Melbourne in southeastern Australia destroyed more than 750 homes, left 5,000 people homeless, and burned 1,100 square miles of land, the Victoria Country Fire Service said. Whole forests were reduced to leafless, charred trunks. Farmland was in ashes.
The scale of the disaster shocked a nation that endures deadly firestorms every few years. Officials said panic and the freight-train speed of the walls of flames probably accounted for the unusually high death toll.
“It was very quick and ferocious and took everyone by surprise,” said Jack Barber, who with his wife, a neighbor, six cats and a dog sought refuge with five other people on a cricket field surrounded by trees in Kinglake.
“All around us was 100-foot flames ringing the oval, and we ran where the wind wasn’t. It was swirling all over the place,” he said. “For three hours, we dodged the wind.”
Firefighters battled more than a dozen blazes that burned out of control across Victoria state, although conditions were much cooler than Saturday. Forecasters said temperatures would rise later this week, posing a risk of flare-ups.
Blazes have been burning for weeks across several states in southern Australia, common for this time of year. But the worst drought in a century in the south had left forests extra dry, and Saturday’s temperature was 117 degrees, the relative humidity was 7 percent, and the wind was gusting to 50 mph.
Flags across Australia flew at half-staff and Parliament suspended its normal sessions to hear emotional condolence speeches by legislators.
President Barack Obama telephoned Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd on Monday night to convey his condolences to the victims. Obama offered U.S. assistance to help with the fires.
Rudd was visibly upset during a TV interview and reflected disgust that arsonists may be to blame.
“What do you say about anyone like that?” Rudd said. “There’s no words to describe it, other than it’s mass murder.”
Attorney General Robert McClelland said anyone found to have deliberately set fires could face murder charges.
Victoria Police Commissioner Christine Nixon said investigators had strong suspicions that one of the deadly blazes — known as the Churchill fire after a ruined town — was arson.