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Vic: Ninety-three dead as fires continue to rage across Victoria

By Jamie Duncan
09 Feb 2009 4:35 AM

MELBOURNE, Feb 9 AAP - Ninety-three people are confirmed dead in Australia's deadliest bushfires that have scorched Victoria, with fears the death toll may rise sharply.

There was little rest for many firefighters overnight, with 25 bushfires still raging out of control at 3.30am (AEDT) on Monday.

At least 750 homes have been destroyed and an estimated 330,000ha burnt out while authorities said some fires could take weeks to contain.

The latest death toll, announced by Victoria Police at 2am (AEDT) on Monday, surpasses the toll from the 1983 Ash Wednesday bushfires, in which 75 people died in Victoria and South Australia, and the Black Friday bushfires of 1939, which killed 71.

Reflecting the chaos caused by the fires, police early Monday said they could not identify the exact location where five of the victims died.

Of the 93 confirmed deaths, at least 63 perished in the largest blaze, in the Kinglake region, that has cut a vast swath across the central highlands from Wandong, south to Kinglake and nearby Saint Andrews, and northeast towards the upper Goulburn Valley.

One fire official said the blaze now had a perimeter extending "hundreds of kilometres" and may take weeks to contain.

The Kinglake fire, which sprawls across 220,000ha - about two-thirds of the area destroyed by fires across Victoria - has all but consumed towns including Kinglake and Marysville.

Former Nine Network Melbourne newsreader Brian Naylor, 78, and his wife Moiree are among the nine people that died at tiny Kinglake West as the flames swept in on Saturday.

It's expected more burned houses, and more victims, will be found once day breaks.

Victorian Emergency Control Centre spokeswoman Caroline Douglass said the Kinglake fire poses two major threats.

Residents of Taggerty, Acheron, Snobs Creek and Eildon are on alert, with the fire active in their area.

"There are quite a lot of hot spots in that area and it is still quite dangerous," Ms Douglass said.

Residents in the Kinglake area have also been asked to remain alert, with containment lines not completed.

Fears are held for communities near Beechworth, in the state's north-east, where a fire has burned 30,000ha so far, Ms Douglass said.

Two people died at the village of Mudgeegonga, in the hills south of Beechworth on Sunday.

Ms Douglass said the fire was still threatening Stanley, Bruarong, Dederang, Gundowring, Gundowring Upper, Kancoona, Kancoona South, Coral Bank, Glen Creek and Running Creek.

The fire had entered the Mount Big Ben area, south-east of Yackandandah, and while quiet overnight may affect Kergunyah, Kergunyah South and Gundowring North during the morning.

Further spotting east of the Kiewa River may also put the towns of Eskdale and Little Snowy Creek at risk.

"The wind is expected to swing to the south and it will push the fire in the direction of Yackandandah over the next day," she said.

In Gippsland, the 32,860ha Churchill fire burned almost to the coast and claimed 21 lives.

Ten died at Calignee, south of Traralgon in the Latrobe Valley, with five dead at nearby Hazlewood, two at Jeeralang and four at Koornalla.

Fire activity had eased overnight but a host of townships are on alert, including Hazelwood South, Jeeralang, Jeeralang North, Jeeralang Junction, Balook, Le Roy, Jumbuck, Valley View, Budgeree East, Traralgon South, Callignee, Calignee North, Calignee South, Carrajung Lower, Won Wron, Woodside, Devon North, Yarram, Calrossie, Alberton, Tarraville, Port Albert, Langsborough, Manns Beach and Robertsons Beach.

The Bunyip Ridge fire in west Gippsland burned 25,000ha.

"It has much-reduced fire behaviour, which is great, but we are yet to get containment lines around it completely. We ask residents to remain vigilant there," Ms Douglass said.

A blaze that has killed two people at Bendigo, and another near Horsham, have been contained by fire crews.

With fires also burning in the Yarra Valley, east of Melbourne, staff at Healesville Sanctuary have evacuated its entire threatened species collection.

Staff have transferred 60 helmeted honeyeaters (including eggs and hatchlings), 25 mountain pygmy possums and their pouch young, 32 Tasmanian devils, 69 orange-bellied parrots, two brush-tailed rock Wallabies and five koalas to Melbourne Zoo as part of the sanctuary's emergency management plan.

Ms Douglass said the weather was the key to gaining the upper hand.

"The weather in the south has been much cooler. In the north of the state, though, it's still very warm. It's very dry," she said.

Moderate to fresh southwest to southerly winds are predicted for Victoria, with isolated light showers on and south of the ranges and morning isolated thunderstorms in the north, where it would remain warm with very high fire danger.

Workers at the emergency control centre are doing it tough but are more worried about firefighters in the field, Ms Douglass said.

"It's certainly sombre, especially as they keep updating the death toll. Every time it goes up, it gets a bit quieter," she said.

"It's hard to keep going knowing the impact this is having in the broader community but I think it's a lot harder on the firefighters out doing their jobs that keep discovering more houses that are burnt or more remains of people. It must be very tough on them."