Death toll in Australia rises over 130

Monday, February 9, 2009

Canberra - Australian police on Monday said the death toll from Victoria's bushfires reached 131 and could top 200 as authorities sift through the piles of ash that were once entire communities.

The fires have now claimed 33 people in the small hamlet of Kinglake and nine in Kinglake West. Ten people were confirmed dead at nearby Marysville.

New deaths have been reported at Narbethong where eight people died and Yarra Glen which has one fatality. The toll for St Andrews has been revised down from 10 to six.

Authorities are being warned to expect a toll of 230. "The Australian" newspaper quoted sources inside state emergency meetings as saying.

More than 750 houses have been destroyed and 330 000 hectares have been burnt.

Fires were still burning out of control and putting towns at risk in the Beechworth and Yackandandah regions in the state's northeast. Shortly after 4pm local time, a third town, Toolangai, was also put on alert.

All fire-devastated areas will be treated as crime scenes to determine if arson was involved, Victorian Police Commissioner Christine Nixon said.

The fires are Australia's worst natural disaster by far: worse than Ash Wednesday bushfire which killed 71 in 1983.

There are 31 fires still raging throughout Victoria after record heat and wild winds set the state ablaze on Saturday.

The Australian Parliament on Monday mourned the victims of the bushfire.

Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard's voice cracked with emotion as she moved a condolence motion for the victims in the Parliament.

"The 7th of February 2009 will now be remembered as one of the darkest days in Australia's peacetime history. A tragedy beyond belief, beyond precedent and really beyond words. It will be remembered as a day of tragedy, courage and sheer luck," she told the parliamentarians.

Attorney-General Robert McClelland said anyone found to have deliberately lit the bushfires could be charged with murder.