HEALESVILLE, AUSTRALIA // Towering flames razed entire towns in south-eastern Australia and burnt fleeing residents in their cars as the death toll rose to 96 today, making it the country's deadliest fire disaster. At least 700 homes were destroyed in the inferno when searing temperatures and wind blasts produced a firestorm that swept across a swathe of the country's Victoria state, where all the deaths occurred. "Hell in all its fury has visited the good people of Victoria in the last 24 hours," Kevin Rudd, the prime minster, told reporters as he toured the fire zone today. "It's an appalling tragedy for the nation." Thousands of exhausted volunteer firefighters were still battling about 30 uncontrolled fires today in Victoria, officials said, though conditions had eased considerably. It would be days before they were under control, even if temperatures stayed down, officials said. Residents in the worst-hit areas north-west of Melbourne, where most of the fatalities occurred, told how they lost loved ones to the flames and desperately tried to help the injured, including children. Entire townships were burnt to the ground, with television footage showing the picturesque Marysville reduced to smoking ruins. At least 500 homes have been destroyed around Kinglake, north of Melbourne where shops, petrol stations and schools were also destroyed. At least a dozen people are believed to have died in the town. Residents who fled ahead of the fire were kept out by police roadblocks when they tried to return yesterday. Chris Harvey, who has lived in Kinglake for 22 years and lost his home, said he believed they were being held back because of the horrors that awaited them. "There's a five-car pile-up on the road into town, all the cars are burnt," Mr Harvey said. "It's going to look like Hiroshima I tell you, it's going to look like a nuclear bomb. There's animals dead all over the road." Mr Harvey's daughters Victoria and Ali, both aged in their 20s, told of a local businessman who lost two of his children as the family tried to flee. "He apparently went to put his kids in the car, put them in, turned around to go grab something from the house, then his car was on fire with his kids in it and they burnt," Victoria Harvey said. Witnesses told of trees "exploding" with the heat and recounted seeing burnt-out cars abandoned as their owners scrambled to safety. Mary Avola, a resident of Strathewen, escaped the flames but her husband of 43 years, Peter, died after they fled their home in separate cars trying to reach a nearby sports field. "He was behind me in another car. He was behind me for a while and we tried to reach the oval but the gates were locked," Ms Avola told Melbourne's Herald Sun. "He just told me to go and that's the last time I saw him." Authorities have found his body. Marie Jones said she was staying at a friend's house in Kinglake, where at least 12 people perished, when a badly burnt man arrived with his infant daughter. She said the man told her his wife and other child had been killed. "He was so badly burnt," she told the Melbourne Age. "He had skin hanging off him everywhere and his little girl was burnt, but not as badly as her dad, and he just came down and he said 'Look, I've lost my wife, I've lost my other kid, I just need you to save [my daughter].'" Callers to national radio described how they were huddling in swimming pools as flames raced towards their homes, and of how children were terrified by the powerful winds, furnace-like heat and an eerie orange glow in the sky. "It was so scary, my little girl, she's five years of age and ? she's emotionally traumatised by what's happened today - the horrible orange glow," said a caller who identified himself as Roger of Traralgon South. Jay Cherie described her family's nightmare drive from Kinglake to safety though a raging inferno. "When the power went out I madly started to try and pack some things. My husband came running into the house and said, 'grab the kids, grab the cat, we've got to get out'," she said. "My little girl was saying to me, 'Mum am I going to see my friends again?', she also said to me, 'Mum am I going to live tomorrow?'." Government officials said the army would be deployed to help out, and Mr Rudd announced immediate emergency aid of 10 million Australian dollars (Dh24.8m). Police said they were hampered from reaching burnt-out areas to confirm details of deaths and property loss. The official toll climbed higher in steps during today, reaching 76 at 20 locations, according to a police statement. It was expected to keep rising. Australia's previous worst fires were in 1983, when 75 people died and more than 3,000 homes in Victoria and South Australia were razed. Police said charred bodies had been found in cars in at least two places - suggesting people were engulfed in flames as they tried to flee. At least 80 people were hospitalised with burns. Dr John Coleridge, of the Alfred Hospital said injuries ranged from scorches on the feet of people who fled across burning ground to life-threatening burns. At least three would probably die, he said. Deputy Commissioner Kieran Walshe said police suspected some of the fires were set deliberately. Temperatures dropped to about 25°C today, but along with cooler conditions came wind changes that officials said could push fires in unpredictable directions. * AP, with additional reporting by AFP
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