Aussie Toll Hits 171; PM Cites 'Mass Murder'

Small town declared crime scene as devastation continues
By Jason Farago,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 9, 2009 9:25 AM CST
Smoke billows as wildfires scorch across Christmas Hill, north east of Melbourne, Australia, Monday, Feb. 9, 2009.    (AP Photo)
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(Newser) – The death toll from angry bushfires in Australia jumped to 171 today, reports Reuters, as the country's prime minister, fighting back tears, accused suspected arsonists of "mass murder." Up to 5,000 people have been left homeless; at one relief center, boards covered with Post-It notes beg for news of loved ones, reports the Times of London. "This is a level of horror that few of us anticipated," said PM Kevin Rudd.

One man who fled the fires described embers the size of dinner plates and winds that "sounded like a hurricane." A small town in Victoria, the southern state that has been worst hit, has been declared a crime scene as authorities investigate the source of the blaze. The fires have been exacerbated by one of the worst droughts in Australia's history, and many have criticized the fire authorities for not requiring a full evacuation.