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Australian bushfires kill 126, dozens more missing

(Updates toll adds detail, insurance, army)

WHITTLESEA, Australia, Feb 9 (Reuters) - Weary firefighters and rescuers pulled the remains of dozens of people from charred buildings on Monday as the death toll rose to 126 from Australia's deadliest bushfires.

Police believe some of the fires, which razed rural towns near the country's second biggest city, Melbourne, were deliberately lit.

"There are no words to describe it other than mass murder," Prime Minister Kevin Rudd told local television.

"These numbers (dead) are numbing ... and I fear they will rise further," he added, as the toll climbed by the hour.

One massive bushfire tore through several towns on Saturday night, destroying everything in its path. Many people died in cars trying to flee the inferno and others were killed huddled in their homes, yet some escaped by taking cover in swimming pools or farm reservoirs or hiding in their cellar.

The inferno was as tall as a four storey building at one stage and was sparking spot fires 40 kms (25 miles) ahead of itself as the strong winds blew hot embers in its path.

"It's going to look like Hiroshima, I tell you. It's going to look like a nuclear bomb. There are animals dead all over the road," survivor Chris Harvey told the local media.

More than 750 houses were destroyed and some 78 people, with serious burns and injuries, are in hospital.

Many patients had burns to more than 30 percent of their bodies and some injuries were worse than the Bali bombings in 2002, said doctor De Villiers Smit at a hospital emergency department.

Wildfires are a natural annual event in Australia, but this year a combination of scorching weather, drought and tinder-dry bush has created prime conditions. (For a factbox on Australian bushfires, click on [ID:nSYD410654].)

The fires, and major floods in the Queensland in the north, will put pressure on Rudd who is is due to deliver a new climate policy in May. Green politicians are citing the extreme weather to back a tougher climate policy.

Scientists say Australia, with its harsh environment, is set to be one nations most affected nations by climate change.

"Continued increases greenhouse gases will lead to further warming and drier conditions in southern Australia, so the (fire) risks are likely to slightly worse," said Kevin Hennessy at the Commonwealth Scientific & Industrial Research Centre (CSIRO).

The Victorian bushfire tragedy is the worst natural disaster in Australia in 110 years. In 1899, Cyclone Mahina struck Australia's northern Cape York, killing more than 400. (For a factbox on Australian natural disasters, click on [ID:nSYD99754].)

PLEAS FOR MISSING

Thousands of firefighters continued on Monday to battle the fire and scores of other blazes across the southern state of Victoria, as well as fires in neighbouring New South Wales state.

While cooler, less windy, conditions helped firefighters, 10 major fires remained out of control in Victoria.

The fires burnt out more than 330,000 ha (815,000 acres) of mostly bushland in Victoria, but a number of vineyards in the Yarra Valley were also destroyed.

The Insurance Council of Australia said it was too early to estimate the total bill and number of claims from the fires.

"We really do need to look at our early warning systems, whether those ... are adequate and whether they can be enhanced on a national basis," said Attorney-General Robert McClelland.

(For a Q+A on Australian bushfires, click on [ID:nSYD436273].)

As dawn broke in the town of Whittlesea, near Kinglake where most people died, shocked residents wandered the streets, some crying, searching for loved ones still missing.

"The last anyone saw of them, the kids were running in the house, they were blocked in the house," cried Sam Gents who had not heard from his wife Tina and three young children, aged 6, 13 and 15, since an inferno swept through Kinglake.

"If they let me up the mountain I know where to go (to try and find them)," Gents sobbed. Authorities sealed off Kinglake as bodies were still being recovered.

Handwritten notes pinned to a board in the Whittlesea evacuation centre told the same sad story, with desperate pleas from people for their missing family and friends to contact them.

Rudd said it would take years to rebuild the devastated towns and has announced a A$10 million ($6.8 million) aid package. He has also called in the army to help erect emergency shelter.

The previous worst bushfire tragedy in Australia was in 1983 when 75 people were killed. (Writing by Michael Perry; Editing by David Fox)

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