Safe Mode: On
Death Toll Rising to 131; Australians Stunned At Loss

The death toll from Victoria's weekend bushfires has risen to 131 and an urgent threat message has been issued for more communities this afternoon.

A wind change this afternoon is causing the huge fire in the Latrobe Valley to flare up along its northern edge and authorities have issued an urgent threat message to residents in the area, telling them it is too late to try and leave.

Residents of Stanley, Bruarong, Dederang, Gundowring, Kancoona, Coral Bank, Glenn Creek and Running Creek, Kergunyah, Eskdale, Yackandandah and Little Snowy Creek are at risk.

Stuart Ord of the Department of Sustainability and Environment says all towns in the surrounding areas need to stay on alert for spot fires.

"The fire hasn't made any particular dramatic run," he said.

"It's not particularly threatening in any serious way at any towns but certainly there is active uncontrolled fire ahead so people in that area need to stay on alert."

The Kinglake blaze, north of Melbourne, is still burning but the Country Fire Authority (CFA) says the fire activity is minimal.

Concerns are also held for the state's main electricity generator, Loy Yang Power.

The same fire is posing a threat to communities as far south as Yarram, near the Gippsland coast.

A lightning strike has started another fire at Wilsons Promontory.

All people have been evacuated, and authorities say the fuel load is so high, they have no choice but to let the fire burn.

Further west, the Bunyip Ridge Fire continues to burn, but the CFA says communities are no longer under direct threat.

The CFA says it has about four days to contain the fires before weather conditions once again exacerbate the situation.

An evacuation centre has been set up in Myrtleford to assist people affected by the Beechworth fire.

It is located at the Senior Citizens Centre in Smith Street.

The Hume Freeway has been re-opened near Wandong, though authorities are still warning motorists to be extremely careful because of reduced visibility, dead wildlife and wandering stock.

The Broadford-Wandong Road remains partially closed, between the Hume Freeway overpass and Sunday Creek.


Crime scene

The town of Marysville has been declared a crime scene after a bushfire swept through causing complete devastation.

Police blocked cars from driving into the town in north-east Victoria saying there were still bodies in the streets and the whole town was a crime scene.

It is believed the fire was deliberately lit.

Police forensic crews are sifting through the ruins of what once was a popular tourist town.

Arson squad detectives are also on the ground in Yarram today, and the area is being treated as a crime scene.

One resident blamed the loss of water pressure, which left residents unable to defend their properties.

In the small community of Granton, just outside of Marysville, just seven out of the 20 houses were still standing on Monday.

Two residents, Kevin and Judy Pertzel, stayed to defend their house using their full water tank of 8,000 litres.

Mrs Pertzel, 59, said they had help from a neighbour across the road after his house went up in less than two minutes.

"The fire came through so quick and in all directions - it was every man for himself," Mrs Pertzel said.

"I almost gave up twice but then I hosed myself down and then kept going."


'Be patient'

Victoria Police are appealing for residents who are trying to return to their properties in bushfire areas to be patient.

Deputy Commissioner Kieran Walshe has told Fairfax Radio there has been some friction between police and people trying to get back to their homes.

"We have difficulties because we have to make sure those areas are totally safe that any evidence that we need to collect is being collected that any bodies that are there have been located and identified so it is difficult, we can't allow people back in until those things are cleared," he said.

Meanwhile, hikers and campers have been moved from Wilsons Promontory, after a lightning strike started a 10-hectare fire near Sealers Cove.


Neighbour rescued

Farmer Thomas Libreri from near Kinglake says he managed to save his house from the flames.

He says after the worst had passed he went looking for his neighbours, and found one with burns to nearly 50 per cent of his body.

"And then we found Mike at the back of his house, still smouldering, he was alive and we managed to get him back here and we saved him," he said.

"He was in our pool for six hours, we couldn't get any emergency services in, we had no help, no firefighting crews no ambulances, we had nothing."

"That I think we'll stay with my kids for a long time, seeing someone burnt like that and you know obviously in pain and everyone just trying to keep him alive and at the same time trying to protect your own property."

Mr Libreri says he had three families sheltering in his home at the height of the fire, with six children under the age of nine.

He says more families have arrived since.

Mr Libreri says no one warned him of the direct threat to the area, and says he waited hours for help after he helped rescue a neighbour.

Kinglake resident Christopher Hardy says he is devastated.

"Everybody's gone. Everybody's gone. They're all dead in their houses there, everybody's dead."

About 20 people who were badly injured in the bushfires are being treated at the Alfred Hospital burns unit.

The surgical director of the unit, Dr Heather Clelland, says many of the patients will undergo significant surgical procedures over the next two days.

"Basically related to the need to remove the burnt tissue and cover the exposed wounds with skin substitutes or ultimately their own skin grafting," she said.


Defending properties

As a result of the weekend deaths, the Victorian Government says it may no longer allow people to stay and defend their properties.

Many of those killed were inside their homes.

Victorian Premier John Brumby says the Government will review all its fire policies.

"What did occur? Were all the steps that were put in place appropriate? Are their different policies, different measures, different arrangements that need to be put in place in the future."

Mr Brumby has since announced a Royal Commission into the fires.

The commission's terms of reference will include all aspects of the Government's bushfire strategy.

The State Government will announce a timeline for the inquiry later in the week.

Victorian Governor David de Kretser says the death toll from the weekend fires is overwhelming.

"The loss of life just keeps going up and up and it's going to take so long to identify who was actually involved," he said.

"And to identify the people concerned, it's just a tragedy of the greatest proportions."


Support

Federal Treasurer Wayne Swan has told Parliament Centrelink family liaison officers and social workers will be deployed throughout relief centres.

A disaster recovery payment of $1,000 will also be made available to those who are seriously injured or who have lost their homes.

A further $400 will be given for each child.

The payment will also be made to an immediate family member of those who have died.

Several states and territories have committed money and resources to the Victorian bushfire emergency.

New South Wales has sent 250 firefighters and 25 search and rescue specialists.

They will join 90 specialists from the ACT.

Tasmania's Fire Service is sending trucks and other equipment by ferry, to join 93 experienced firefighters already in Victoria.

The state is also helping Victorian farmers with shipments of fodder.

Western Australia will donate $1 million to the Victorian bushfire relief fund, with more than 22 specialists heading to Victoria and more on standby.

One hundred New Zealand firefighters are also on standby.

Forensic experts from several states are also helping to identify the victims of the fires.

Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon says the army will be helping to find the bodies of people killed by the bushfires.

About 200 soldiers are helping with the disaster in Victoria.

Mr Fitzgibbon says they have heavy earth-moving equipment, will be providing emergency bedding and will also be searching for victims.

"They are trained to handle these situations, but that doesn't mean that it's not very, very difficult for them," he said.

"They are there in support of all those organisations and authorities who other who are over-stretched."


Appeal overwhelmed

The Salvation Army says there has been an overwhelming response to its Victorian bushfire appeal so far.

The charity's Pat Daley says people need to be patient if they are donating money.

"We're being inundated," he said.

"We are very, very gratified and pleased at the response - not only us but the other agencies and government response to the special appeal that's been set up."

The Australian Red Cross says it too has been overwhelmed by the response so far.

It says $1.6 million has been raised so far today, not including large donations from state governments and corporations.

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Added: Feb-9-2009 Occurred On: Feb-9-2009
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