Australia's bushfires leave trail of death and destruction

Reuters News
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Posted: Nov 25, 2015 10:31 PM

By Colin Packham

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Fourteen bushfires burning across southern Australia have killed two people, thousands of animals, and destroyed 16 homes, and authorities on Thursday said they feared the toll could rise.

The fires, which stretch across 210 kms (130 miles), broke out on Wednesday in heatwave conditions and quickly burnt across farmlands, forcing residents to flee and others to frantically try and save their homes and livestock.

Emergency workers said that 60 percent of the fires were now under control.

"It was just the intensity of the fire and the speed. We tried to put it out. You just couldn't put it out," farmer John Lush told Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

"We've got a big machinery shed...and the (roof) gutters of that are 25 feet (eight metres) off the ground and the flames were coming over the top of that shed, so it was just horrific," said Lush.

A 56-year-old woman and a 69-year-old man died in separate fires. South Australia State Premier Jay Weatherill said 30 people were being treated for various injuries.

"Five of those are either in critical or serious condition with significant burns. We know that one of those persons has burns to more than 80 percent on their body," said Weatherill.

"We hold grave fears for many more (and) can't be entirely sure we have identified every single person in the fire ground," he said.

Wildfires are an annual summer event in Australia, but rising temperatures have prompted some scientists to warn that climate change could increase the length and intensity of the summer fire season. The Australian Bureau of Meteorology declared October the hottest month on record.

While residents who escaped the latest fires described their desperate attempts to save their homes, one absent homeowner 3,000 kms (1,890 miles) north in the city of Darwin used a smartphone to activate his irrigation system to save his house.

"It's come up all around the house but my ability to turn on irrigation systems from my phone in Darwin and the fact that I had neighbours patrolling with fire units, I think we're lucky we got away with a house," Simon Maddocks told Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Maddocks' 40 hectare (99 acre) wheat farm on the outskirts of the town of Hamley Bridge was completely burnt out.

Damage reports suggest more than 85,000 hectares of farmland and bush have been burnt by the fires, Weatherill said, with a significant livestock lost, including more than 2,000 pigs.

(Reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by Michael Perry and Sanjeev Miglani)