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Australian bushfire toll at 171
Updated: 2009-02-10 11:14

The death toll from bushfires in Australia's southeastern Victoria state had risen to at least 171. The toll was likely to rise even further, a Victoria police spokesman said by telephone from Melbourne.

Police believe some of the fires, which razed rural towns near the country's second biggest city, Melbourne, were deliberately lit and declared one devastated town a crime scene.

The bushfires are the country's worst natural disaster in more than a century, and will put pressure on Rudd to deliver a broad new climate policy.

More than 750 houses were destroyed and some 78 people, with serious burns and injuries, are in hospital.

The fires burnt out more than 815,000 acres of mostly bushland in Victoria, but a number of vineyards in the Yarra Valley were also destroyed. The Insurance Council of Australia said it was too early to estimate the bill.

One massive bushfire tore through several towns in the southern state of Victoria on Saturday night, destroying everything in its path. Many people died in cars trying to flee and others were killed huddled in their homes, yet some escaped by jumping into swimming pools or farm reservoirs.