World News

Australian firefighters close to containing blazes

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australian firefighters are close to containing bushfires that killed at least 181 people, officials said on Saturday, while police allowed one of the worst-hit communities a brief visit to their devastated town.

Around a dozen fires were still burning in the state of Victoria and it would be at least two weeks before authorities would be able to say the fires were out, said Stuart Ord of the state’s emergency coordination centre.

“Throughout the day there has been a lot of work done on putting in containment lines and that has involved a reasonable amount of backburning,” Ord told Reuters, referring to the lighting of controlled fires.

In Marysville, which was razed to the ground when the fires peaked last weekend, police escorted residents back for a glimpse of the town.

Police said more than 200 of the town’s former population of several hundred made the trip, but some deliberately chose to stay away. The visit was made in buses under tight restrictions and residents were not expected to be allowed off the vehicles.

One resident Simon Hudson described the town to reporters as “just complete devastation except for 10 or so houses.”

Authorities have said up to 100 people may be dead in Marysville, a once-picturesque community northeast of Melbourne. The town is now officially a crime scene.

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The bushfires are the worst natural disaster to hit Australia in more than a century. The death toll of 181 is expected to rise once a fuller assessment is made.

Smoke from the remaining fires reached Melbourne on Saturday, leaving the city shrouded in haze. Thousands have been called in to help fight the fires, including assistance from other states and from New Zealand.

On Friday, a man was charged with “arson causing death” and “intentionally or recklessly” lighting a fire near the town of Churchill last weekend. He was later moved to Melbourne for his own protection.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has called the disaster “mass murder.” Researchers believe around half of the bushfires in Australia are lit deliberately.

The disaster area, more than twice the size of London and encompassing more than 20 towns, has been declared a crime zone. The fires have burnt 1,831 homes and left 7,000 people homeless.

Editing by Valerie Lee