Australia Battles Its Worst Wildfires In History

The wildfires in Australia are being called the worst in that country's history. Firefighters are still battling blazes that so far have caused nearly 200 deaths, destroyed more than 750 homes and left thousands homeless. Arson is suspected in some of the hundreds of fires. Alica Byrne, a reporter for the Australian Broadcasting Corp., talks with Linda Wertheimer about the fires.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

The wildfires in Australia are being called the worst in that country's history. Firefighters are still battling blazes that so far have caused nearly 200 deaths, destroyed more than 750 homes and left thousands homeless. One of those who saw his home burn is reporter Gary Hughes, who spoke with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Mr. GARY HUGHES (Reporter, Australia): As I looked out in a completely different direction, a wall of flame was racing up that side of the house being driven by a completely different wind. God knows where that fire had come from. It got - from the grass it got up to some trees about 50 meters from the house. I thought, oh, if I stand here a second longer I'll be dead.

WERTHEIMER: That was newspaper reporter Gary Hughes. To talk about the fires we reached Australian Broadcasting Corporation Reporter Alicia Byrne in Melbourne.

Good morning.

Ms. ALICIA BYRNE (Reporter, Australian Broadcasting Corporation): Good morning.

WERTHEIMER: Are there very many people unaccounted for or can you tell at this point?

Ms. BYRNE: There are people who've been at the various relief centers putting up notes. It's almost reminiscent of the September 11 incident in New York, where people were putting up notes saying can you help me find this person. There's also a line that's been set up by the Red Cross. They've had 7,000 people register there to say we're ok. And they've had 10,000 inquires from family and friends looking for people.

WERTHEIMER: Are authorities making any progress in trying to contain the fires in Victoria, or are they getting to the point where they're going to let them burn out?

Ms. BYRNE: Some of the activity has decreased. They are still looking at some fires that are possibly threatening property to the east and the northeast of the city of Melbourne. But as far as the major fire goes, the one that claimed the most lives, that's pretty much contained at the moment. These fires will probably continue to burn through the week. But as far as loss of life goes, I think we're hoping that this is as far as it's going to go.

WERTHEIMER: Do you know anything about the suspected arsonists?

Ms. BYRNE: Well, they have confirmed that they are looking into one of the fires as being deliberately lit. That's a fire at Churchill that claimed some lives east of Melbourne. They have also sealed off another town, which they're looking into as a crime scene. The entire town of Marysville has been sealed off and the remains of the people who died there haven't been removed. So they do look into these things. And the premier has set up a task force to look into these fires.

WERTHEIMER: Many of the people who were killed died protecting their homes. These fires appeared to move very quickly. I wonder if there's some thinking there that authorities need to change their practices for handling these kinds of fires.

Ms. BYRNE: Yeah, well, we have the - in Victoria - the stay and defend or leave early policy, where you either decide, ok, I'm getting out and you leave your property early in the day before there's any threat of fire or smoke, or you stay and defend your property. And people in this part of the world we're pretty bush fire savvy. We deal with it on a yearly basis.

WERTHEIMER: If you have a national practice where it's generally considered to be ok to stay and to fight the fire or to try to protect your property, what's different about this fire that so many people have died?

Ms. BYRNE: We've had some extreme weather conditions lately. We had our hottest day on record in Melbourne on Saturday. That was 115 1/2 Fahrenheit. There were very, very strong winds. There's a lack of water around. We've had issues with power, due to extreme heat, recently. All of these sorts of things, combined, we were warned that they were possibly the worst fire conditions in about 50 years. But nobody expected what we got.

WERTHEIMER: Alicia Byrne, thank you very much.

Ms. BYRNE: Thank you.

WERTHEIMER: Alicia Byrne of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. We reached her in Melbourne.

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