8 Feb 2009

Australian bushfires kill 14

5:34 am on 8 February 2009

Bushfires killed at least 14 people in Victoria on Saturday amid a continuing heatwave. The toll could get worse.

All the deaths were in a massive fire in rural towns 80km north of Melbourne.

More than 85 towns remained on alert on Saturday night. Dozens of houses have been burnt.

Six of the deaths were at Kinglake, four at Wandong, three at Strathewen and one in Clonbinane.

Deputy police commissioner Kieran Walshe said the six killed in Kinglake were all in the same car.

Describing the deaths "as an absolute tragedy for the state," he said: "we believe the figure may even get worse" and "could get into the 40s."

The Victorian bushfire had already burned about 3000 hectares of mainly national park earlier on Saturday, before it flared in the afternoon. A cool southerly change hit with strong winds fanning the fire into the towns.

Fire officials said about 30,000 hectares were burned within hours.

In a statement, state premier John Brumby said: "Today Victoria has experienced the worst fire conditions in history, even worse than Ash Wednesday of 1983."

He was referring to Australia's worst bushfires, when 75 people were killed in Victoria.

Temperatures in Melbourne rose to 46.4 degrees Celsius on Saturday - the highest on record.