TOPICS > Politics

Death Toll Grows in Australian Wildfires

February 9, 2009 at 6:30 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: On the Australia tragedy, where 160 people are feared dead in fires in the southeast part of the country near Melbourne. Libby Weiner of Independent Television News begins our coverage.

LIBBY WEINER: Fast and ferocious, in a matter of minutes, fire had torn the heart out of the state of Victoria. In this hot, dry land, bushfires are common, but the devastation this weekend was unlike anything they’d seen before.

AUSTRALIAN MAN: You can’t imagine what intensity and it’s taking the air out of your lungs. That was the scary thing. The heat, you could tolerate, but we couldn’t breathe. That was the worst thing.

Kinglake was devastated

LIBBY WEINER: Virtually nothing is left of the town of Kinglake; 500 homes have gone, and the roadside is strewn with the wreckage of cars that didn't make it.

There were emotional scenes in the valley below as those who did escape comforted their loved ones. Most have nothing left but the clothes they stood in. Vivian Gower and her mother, Shirley  only just got out in time.

AUSTRALIAN WOMAN: "Get in the car, get in the car," she said. And I said, "Why? Why? What's the matter?" She said, "Get in the flippin' car!"

AUSTRALIAN WOMAN: And I just -- and I just looked out, and suddenly I could smell the smoke.

AUSTRALIAN MAN: All their best friends are dead. Their kids are dead. And, you know, I played golf with a 12-year-old kid on Saturday, and he's not here anymore.

AUSTRALIAN MAN: I lost two kids, mate. You know? You know? Nothing will bring them back.

Army called upon

LIBBY WEINER: With the death toll rising, the army were drafted in. Exhausted rescue workers getting little respite. Elsewhere, hospitals were treating the most severely burned, but in reality, most in this disaster survived uninjured or died.

The prime minister, Kevin Rudd, came to comfort a bewildered community, aware that these are dark days for Australia.

KEVIN RUDD, prime minister, Australia: And there but for the grace of God go I, because any of us could have been in this situation.

Fires were still burning

LIBBY WEINER: It was often a split-second decision which determined whether someone lived or died. Those who took to the roads in their cars had been warned they might perish on the way, and many did, but some miraculously got through.

Others who decided to sit out the blaze in their homes -- standard procedure in a normal bushfire -- found themselves completely overwhelmed. In this inferno, they didn't stand a chance.

Today there are still many fires burning in Victoria, residents again facing the dilemma of whether to leave or stay.

AUSTRALIAN MAN: Make up your own mind what you're going to do. Each house is different, everyone's circumstances different.

LIBBY WEINER: But with scenes of utter devastation across the state, it's unlikely many will now want to stay behind. The Australian bush, once seen as a haven, now feared for the hellish firestorm unleashed in its midst.