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Australian fire zone a crime scene; 166 killed

WHITTLESEA, Australia - Police declared incinerated townscrime scenes Monday, and the prime minister spoke of "massmurder" after investigators said arsonists may have set some ofAustralia's worst wildfires in history. The death toll rose to 166.

There were no quick answers, but officials said panic and thefreight-train speed of the fire front -- driven by 60 mph winds andtemperatures as high as 117 degrees Fahrenheit -- probablyaccounted for the unusually high toll.

- Click to see the latest photos from the Australian fires

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, visibly upset during a televisioninterview, reflected the country's disgust at the idea thatarsonists may have set some of the 400 fires that devastatedVictoria state, or helped them jump containment lines.

"What do you say about anyone like that?" Rudd said. "There'sno words to describe it, other than it's mass murder."

From the air, the landscape was blackened as far as the eyecould see. In at least one town, bodies still lay in the streets.Entire forests were reduced to leafless, charred trunks, farmlandto ashes. Victoria police spokeswoman Christie Pengally said thedeath toll as of late Monday was 166.

At Kinglake, a body covered by a white sheet lay in a yard whereevery tree, blade of grass and the ground was blackened. Elsewherein the town, the burned-out hulks of four cars were clusteredhaphazardly together after an apparent collision. AustralianBroadcasting Corp. radio reported a car in a small reservoir, thedriver apparently steering there in desperation.

"What we've seen, I think, is that people didn't have enoughtime, in some cases," Victoria Police Commissioner Christine Nixontold a news conference. "We're finding [bodies] on the side ofroads, in cars that crashed."

But there were also extraordinary tales of survival.

One man leapt into his pool to escape the flames as they roaredover his house, leaving it unscarred but razing his neighbor's.Another woman sheltered with her children in a wombat burrow as theworst of the fire passed.

Mark Strubing took refuge in a drainage pipe as his propertyoutside Kinglake burned.

"We jumped in the car and we were only literally just able tooutrun this fire. It was traveling as fast as the wind," Strubingtold Nine Network television news.

He said he and a companion rolled around in the water at thebottom to wet their clothing as the flames started licking thepipe: "How we didn't burn I don't know."

Elsewhere in Kinglake, Jack Barber fled just ahead of the flameswith his wife and a neighbor, driving in two cars packed with birthcertificates, insurance documents, two cats, four kittens and adog.

"We had a fire plan," he said Monday. "The plan was to getthe hell out of there before the flames came."

With their escape route blocked by downed power lines and atree, they took shelter first at a school, then -- when that burned -- in an exposed cricket ground ringed by trees, where they foundfive others.

"All around us was 100-foot flames ringing the oval,and we ran where the wind wasn't. It was swirling all over theplace," Barber said. "For three hours, we dodged the wind."

The Victoria Country Fire Service said some 850 square mileswere burned out.

More than a dozen fires still burned uncontrollably across thestate, though conditions were much cooler than on Saturday, whenthe wind surged and changed direction quickly time and again,fanning the blazes and making their direction utterly unpredictablefrom minute to minute.

Local media had been issuing warnings in the days leading up tothe weekend, but many people guarding their homes with backyardhoses would have been outside when the wind changed, and thus couldhave missed the new warnings.

Jim Andrews, senior meteorologist at accuweather.com, said thecombination of record high heat, high winds, gusts and low humiditycreated a perfect storm scenario for the fires. "I cannot fathomin my mind anything more, hellish, firewise," he said.

"Last Saturday we had the most intense fire weather conditionswe have had in forecast history," David Packham, a research fellowin climatology at the School of Geography & Environmental Scienceat Melbourne's Monash University, said in an e-mail to journalistson Monday. He said the heat and a recent lack of rain made it cleardays before the weekend that "conditions were in place for adisaster to occur."

At least 750 homes were destroyed Saturday, the Victoria CountryFire Service said.

Officials said both the tolls of human life and property wouldalmost certainly rise as they reached deeper into the disasterzone, and forecasters said temperatures would rise again later inthe week, posing a risk of further flare-ups.

Police Commissioner Nixon said investigators had strongsuspicions that at least one of the deadly blazes -- known as theChurchill fire after a ruined town -- was deliberately set. And itcould not be ruled out for other fires. She cautioned againstjumping to conclusions.

The country's top law officer, Attorney General RobertMcClelland, said people found to have deliberately set fires couldface murder charges. Murder can carry a life sentence.

Police sealed off Maryville, a town destroyed by another fire,with checkpoints, telling residents who fled and news crews theycould not enter because there were still bodies in the streets.Armed officers moved through the shattered landscape taking notes,pool news photographs showed.

John Handmer, a wildfire safety expert at the Royal MelbourneInstitute of Technology, said research had shown that people in thepath of a blaze must get out early or stay inside until the worsthas past.

"Fleeing at the last moment is the worst possible option," hesaid. "Sadly, this message does not seem to have been sufficientlyheeded this weekend with truly awful consequences in Victoria."

Even if a house is set ablaze, it will burn more slowly and withless intensity than a wildfire and residents have a better chanceof escape, he said.

Victoria state Premier John Brumby on Monday announced acommission would be held to examine all aspects of the fires,including warning policies.

"I think our policy has served us well in what I call normalconditions. These were unbelievable circumstances," Brumby said onAustralian Broadcasting Corp. television.

Blazes have been burning for weeks across several states insouthern Australia. A long-running drought in the south -- the worstin a century -- had left forests extra dry and Saturday's fireconditions in Victoria were said to be the worst ever in Australia.

In New South Wales state on Monday, a 31-year-old man appearedin court charged with arson in connection with a wildfire thatburned north of Sydney over the weekend. No loss of life wasreported there. He faces up to 10 years in prison.

The country's deadliest fires before the current spate killed 75people in 1983. In 2006, nine people died on South Australia's EyrePeninsula.

- Click to see the latest photos from the Australian fires

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