Australian Bush Fires Kill More Than 100

More than 80 people have died in southern Australia from wild bush fires. Firefighters are battling the fires, but the death toll is expected to rise. NPR's Liane Hansen speaks with Melissa Brown of the Australian Broadcasting Corp. about the devastation.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

It's the middle of summer in Australia, and the southeastern part of the country is being hit by the deadliest wildfires in the country's history. Scores of people have been killed as they try to flee the ranging blazes in their cars or huddled in their homes. Joining us from Melbourne is Melissa Brown of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Thanks for your time.

Ms. MELISSA BROWN (Reporter, Australian Broadcasting Corp.): That's OK.

HANSEN: We understand there've been some very frightening stories from people who are fleeing the fires. Can you tell us what's been happening?

Ms. BROWN: These fires have just absolutely shocked everyone in their ferocity and their destruction. We've had stories of people going out for a walk, seeing a bit of smoke in the sky, and within 10 minutes have returned home and their house is on fire. Or they've been trying to jump in their cars and outrun these fires.

The death toll is just continuing to mount and most - well, it's now coming out that there's a mix of people who've been in their cars trying to outrun these fires and others who've been trapped inside their homes, and they've burnt down around them.

HANSEN: The house have burnt down around them, people were burned in their cars?

Ms. BROWN: That's right. People panicked and tried to jump in their cars and drive out of the area, but all their homes, these areas were just surrounded, every side, by fires.

We've heard stories from people who weren't near their homes, but have called home to their wives or their husbands and had them screaming down the phone to them that they had to get out of there, and then they've lost communication with them for hours. Some of them have ended up with happy stories where they found at them at emergency relief centers, but many have not had that happy ending.

HANSEN: Have they found any cause for the fires? Do they know why they started?

Ms. BROWN: There's a mixture of reasons. Some were just caused by nature. We had amazing conditions the day before where the capital city here, Melbourne, had received its hottest day on record of 115 degrees Fahrenheit. Centers around Melbourne to the north received even hotter temperatures than that, and the winds were gale force.

Melbourne and Victoria is just in a horrible drought, and it's just so dry, so a combination of those factors saw these fires start. There've been some lightning strikes from thunderstorms that haven't brought rain, but have just brought lightning. And unfortunately, we've also had a few that have been deliberately lit.

HANSEN: Deliberately lit.

Ms. BROWN: That's right.

HANSEN: Is there any prognosis for how long this might last?

Ms. BROWN: The major ferocious fires are now getting under control, but we still have three major fires in different parts of the state that are still threatening communities, and they could take days to put out.

The wind have thankfully died down, but while they were at their height, they were just sending burning embers kilometers, kilometers ahead. In some states, there's one instance of a 50-kilometer difference between the main fire and where a spot fire started. That's where a burning leaf comes down, it was pushed along in the wind, comes down and starts a new fire. So it's going to be days before they can get a handle on this. ..TEXT: HANSEN: Melissa Brown of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Thank you very much and the best of luck to everyone there.

Ms. BROWN: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: You're listening to NPR News.

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