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Healesville, Australia The high death toll from hundreds of wildfires across southeastern Australia has forced authorities to re-examine an accepted survival strategy when blazes threaten: Get out early or hunker down and fight.
Many people waited too long and perished as they tried to escape the weekend infernos.
“People need to understand that a late departure is the most deadly,” fire chief Paul Rees said.
Recovery teams moving into burned out towns in Victoria state found charred bodies on roadsides and in wrecked cars — grim signs of futile attempts to flee the raging wildfires fed by 60 mph winds, record heat and drought. The number of deaths was expected to surpass 200, and a few fires were still burning.
“The clear evidence is that the most dangerous place to be is on the road,” Rees, Victoria’s country fire authority chief, told reporters Tuesday.
The scale of the disaster has shocked a nation that endures deadly firestorms every few years.
Authorities defended their preparations and actions during the fires that swept southeastern Australia on Saturday, saying the extreme weather conditions made catastrophe almost inevitable.
But they agreed that the “stay and defend” policy, under which homeowners remain to protect their properties from fire, needed to be reviewed.
“It is the application of that policy and a lack of an alternative that we need to work on,” Rees said.
Evacuation is not mandatory in high-risk areas, and Australia’s wildfire services largely comprise volunteers who lack the resources to protect every home.
In Victoria, there is no formal alert system to warn of approaching wildfires, though the Country Fire Authority distributes advice and updates on its Web site and through radio broadcasts.
One expert suggested Australia’s shifting demographics could be partly to blame for the scale of the tragedy.
Mark Adams of the Bushfire Cooperative Research Center told Australian Broadcasting Corp. Television that many urbanites who moved to city outskirts have no experience with wildfires and rely wholly on the fire service for help. But families who have lived in the area for generations are prepared to battle blazes themselves, Adams said.
The wildfires outside Melbourne, Australia’s second largest city, destroyed more than 750 homes, left 5,000 people homeless and burned 1,100 square miles of land, the fire authority said.
While the official death toll stood at 181 today, Victoria Premier John Brumby said there were an additional 50 bodies that the coroner had not identified and were not included in the official tally.