Australia's deadliest bushfires for 22 years left nine people dead and dozens injured yesterday as firefighters fought to control blazes raging in two states and threatening a third.
The fires razed almost 50,000 hectares of bush and farmland, destroying homes, farms, cars and caravans and forcing hundreds of people to flee, some into the sea to be rescued by boats.
Eight of the victims, including two children aged two and four, were burned to death in cars as they tried to flee firestorms sweeping South Australia's Eyre Peninsula, part of which remained cut off yesterday.
The charred body of a ninth victim was found yesterday in the badly damaged beach township of North Shields.
Police said a further 15 people remained unaccounted for but said they did not expect the death toll to rise.
Thousands of sheep and cattle were also killed or badly burned and teams of veterinary officers began yesterday to examine injured animals and assess the extent of livestock damage.
An unknown number of homes were left without essential services and people left homeless were given refuge in cinemas and other public buildings.
Queensland holidaymaker Borbala Nemes, who fled a caravan park in North Shields, told reporters how a park resident was rescued by a fishing boat after jumping into the sea with his daughter.
"He had to swim and he has a 12-year-old daughter, Laura is her name, and they were swimming out to the sea and the fishing boat picked them up," she said.
Russell Puckridge, who lost his home in North Shields, told ABC radio he had just paid off his mortgage after 15 years.
"A lot of work all gone up in smoke, that's all I can say," he said. "We've got nothing left, nothing. My missus couldn't even grab her handbag or nothing, no money, cards, no nothing. We've got what we're wearing and that's it."
Prime Minister John Howard offered condolences to families, saying the tragic loss of life was "a terrible reminder of the ever-present threat of bushfires and their devastating effect on this country."
In neighboring Victoria, firefighters used bulldozers and other heavy machinery to establish control lines around a fire which claimed at least one home, destroyed more than 2,000 sheep and at one stage threatened two small towns.
The worst fires since the Ash Wednesday bushfires claimed 75 lives in South Australia and Victoria in 1983, were sparked this week by high winds and searing temperatures in bush already tinder dry after a long drought.
Similar conditions were being forecast for yesterday and today in the eastern state of New South Wales, extra fire crews and water-bombing aircraft were placed on standby in high-risk areas.
South Australian Authorities said weather had helped the firefighters, allowing defensive backburning, but warned that hotter weather was forecast again for later in the week.
The state's Emergency Services Minister Patrick Conlon said the scale of the destruction was staggering.
"It has moved faster than any similar sort of fire that we have had records of. That is why, tragically, it has caught some people fleeing," he said.