WORLD> Asia-Pacific
Residents return to destroyed homes in Australia
Updated: 2009-02-11 15:13

It was not clear if those people owned the houses, or were searching for food, clothes or other necessities.

Residents were allowed to return to Kinglake, about 70 miles (130 kilometers) north of the Victoria state capital of Melbourne, but their progress was slow because emergency workers were still removing burned debris and cutting down trees that appeared ready to fall. Power lines - the electricity supply long cut - were strewn across some streets.

Some houses bore makeshift signs with messages from survivors to loved ones who might come looking for them.

"All out ... we shall return," said one sign.

While there is free access to many areas in the fire zone, tensions have been rising in recent days as demands rose for police to let residents back to the worst-hit places to check on their homes and check on pets and other animals left behind. Police urged people to be patient.

Victoria Premier John Brumby said some survivors had not even seen television footage of the disaster's scale and he was worried about the emotional impact on people seeing the destruction for the first time.

More than 400 fires ripped through Victoria on Saturday, fed by 60 mph (100 kph) winds, record heat and a severe drought. The official death toll stood at 181 on Wednesday, but bodies were still being collected and Brumby said it would "exceed 200 deaths."

The Country Fire Authority said Wednesday the official tally of houses destroyed had risen to more than 1,000, from 750 earlier. Some 5,000 people are homeless, and 1,100 square miles (2,850 square kilometers) of land has been scorched.

Thousands of mostly volunteer firefighters were still battling more than a dozen fires across the state on Wednesday. Weather conditions were cool, but gusting winds constantly threatened efforts to get them under control. Forecasters said temperatures could rise again by the weekend.

Donations have poured in. The Red Cross said its government-backed wildfire fund had received more than 33 million Australian dollars ($22 million). Police and nongovernment organizations were collecting clothes, toys and homewares.

Some of the survivors were living in tents erected by emergency services on sports fields. Others stayed with friends or at relief centers.

The high death toll has forced authorities to re-examine an accepted survival strategy when blazes threaten: Get out early or hunker down and fight. Many people waited too long and died as they tried to escape.

But Brumby said the policy would remain in place until a full investigation had been carried out.

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