SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA, AND LOS ANGELES -- At least 130 people have died in howling wildfires in Australia, so fierce that they incinerated people trying to flee in their cars, sent towering walls of flames sweeping through small towns and sparked a new debate over whether homeowners should be allowed to stay to try to protect their property.
Police suspect arson in at least two fires that raged in the eastern part of Victoria state, and Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, appearing to fight back tears, called the worst infernos in Australian history "mass murder."
"This is a level of horror that few of us anticipated," he said. Flags around the country were at half-staff.
Firefighters and distraught survivors searching through the scorched rubble of homes and other destroyed buildings discovered more bodies early today, raising the official death toll to 130. Officials feared the number might double.
The country's previous worst wildfires were on February 16, 1983, when prolonged drought dried Victoria state's eucalyptus forests to tinder that fueled scores of blazes, fanned by hot, dry winds from the north. The fires killed 83 people, including firefighters, on what Australians remember as Ash Wednesday.
At one hospital Sunday, at least 22 people were being treated, 10 of them listed in critical condition. More than 750 homes have been destroyed, and thousands of survivors are homeless.
Casualties were concentrated in an area north of Melbourne, in a region that has withered under such devastating heat and drought over recent years that residents have given their suffering a name: the Big Dry.
Temperatures soared above 105 degrees over the weekend, and as dry winds whipped up flames, firestorms erupted that were so intense, tall trees suddenly exploded in balls of fire that spewed embers high into the darkening sky.
In just a few days, thousands of overstretched firefighters have battled the roaring infernos across an area of 1,200 square miles, one of the statistics the prime minister called "numbing."
Rudd directed the army to set up emergency camps for survivors, many of whom have wandered shellshocked through the ashes of their homes, crying and calling out for missing loved ones.
Many residents who stood their ground, often armed with just garden hoses to defend their homes, were suddenly trapped by fast-moving flames.
Mandy Darking, who lives northeast of Melbourne in Kinglake, said she and her family had no time to prepare for the blaze that razed her town.
"I was working at the local restaurant and we were all carrying on like nothing was going on but then word came that we should go home," the mother of five told the Australian Associated Press. "Soon after, I looked outside the window and said, 'Whoa, we are out of here. This is going to be bad.'
"I could see it coming. I just remember the blackness and you could hear it, it sounded like a train. I raced home in my car, straight into the driveway, placed all the kids in the house and within two minutes it was here and it was as dark as midnight at 4:30 p.m."
Firefighters said they found the charred shells of at least 20 cars with corpses inside. Some of the vehicles had apparently crashed as frantic drivers, blinded by the thick smoke, desperately tried to outpace the inferno.
Another Kinglake resident, Sue Allred, said she had stayed to save her home but that it had been touch-and-go.
"All of a sudden we were in a raging inferno, there was colored smoke and the noise was indescribable," she said on local TV. "It was terrifying. I did fear for my life at one point.
"There was a horrible moment of indecision where I just thought . . . I'm going to stay here and beat this flame back, and where do I hide? Which building do I hide in?"
The fires' caprice spared no one. Tourists in the Yarra Valley, a popular wine-growing region, were trapped as a blaze surrounded one town. One of Australia's most prominent former television news anchors was found with his wife, dead outside their home. Churches, schools, police offices and even fire stations burned.
Some left their evacuation too late. Three sisters detained at a police roadblock received the grim news that their elderly parents and disabled brother were dead at their home, the Australian news agency reported. Their packed car was in the driveway, keys in the ignition and their dog in the back.
The fires ravaged Victoria's agricultural belt, with its rolling hills and dense bush that demarcate the Great Dividing Range. Cattle and sheep ranches were hit, as were vineyards already seared by a week of record-high temperatures.
Homeowners are allowed to stay to try to protect their property from wildfires, a policy called "stay or go" that was adopted state by state in Australia, beginning in the mid-1990s.
The country has a deadly history of massive bush fires. The weather, topography and even plant life conspire to create a flammability that has given rise to the nickname "continent of fire."
Some of the world's foremost fire scientists reside in Australia, a nation so accustomed to dealing with bush fires that it has the world's largest volunteer firefighting force.
But all of that expertise and experience couldn't prepare firefighters for the conditions they faced over the weekend. Daryl Wells, for 32 years the fire brigade captain in the Melbourne suburb of Werribee, said the hundreds of fires around Victoria were so out of control that no one should have tried to put them out.
He said two firefighting strike teams in his region were overrun by flames. David Gillett, brigade captain with the Country Fire Authority in Anakie said some of his crews that were caught in the fires called off their own rescuers so that no one else would be exposed to the danger.
"I've never seen it like this," he said. "The wind was so bad you could hardly stand. I was in front of the fire station in my full fire gear for just a few moments and couldn't take it. I went to the hose and drenched myself, with water running out my boots. Within 15 minutes, I was dry as a bone."
The extreme weather exacerbated the problems. "We've had 12 years of drought," Wells said, exhausted after fighting fires all weekend. "The rain that does come produces grasses that are highly flammable. The fuel has been heated over the last month, with record high temperatures. We've had very strong northerly winds and low humidity. It's a recipe for disaster. You can't fight Mother Nature when it's in its fury. It's pure horror.
"There's a guy called Murphy, isn't there? It was Murphy's Law, anything that could go wrong, did."
Even with official warnings broadcast for days, Wells said, Victorians are still shocked by the extent of destruction.
"The feeling in the community is one of general disbelief. How can this happen in this day and age?" he said.
Volunteer Carlene Baker was on a fire truck that battled blazes near Drouin and Warragul , southeast of Melbourne. The area known for its dairy farms was burned out.
"I saw a lot of homes lost," she said. "I saw a lot of dead cattle. Fields of them. The smell was overwhelming."
Everywhere, homes were either obliterated or badly damaged.
Geoff Russel, a spokesman for the Department of Sustainability and Environment, said the Beechworth fire was the one of most concern.
Police are investigating at least two fires in eastern Victoria state that they believe were deliberately set. Australian law carries a maximum 25 years in prison for anyone convicted of murder caused by arson.
As other fires are brought under control, they also will be investigated for any evidence of arson, police said. An arsonist is suspected of restarting some of the fires that have been put out, said Steve Warrington, deputy chief of Victoria state's Country Fire Authority.
Cooler weather and reduced winds are expected in Victoria the next few days, and firefighters hope this will allow them to get the fires under control. But almost 500,000 acres of forest, farmland and residential property have been destroyed.
"The whole idea now is we consolidate the gains we've made," said the fire authority's state duty officer, Mark Glover. "So we'll try and track the fires, and then what we'll try and do then is ensure the fire inside burns right up to those lines and then we consolidate the blackness around those lines as much as we possibly can."