compiled by Dee Finney


As of  5-10-09

There have been over 32,000 wildfires already this year: 
Wonder where they were?
Sure weren't in the news!


By Dan Hart and Brian K. Sullivan

May 10 , 2009 (Bloomberg) -- California state and county officials said the wildfire threatening parts of Santa Barbara near the Pacific coast was 40 percent contained, and evacuees began returning home yesterday.

Calmer winds, helped by temperatures in the 60s Fahrenheit, aided firefighters battling the 8,733-acre (3,493-hectare) Jesusita blaze, which showed “minimum growth,” the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said on its Web site. Eighty homes were destroyed or damaged, and more than 30,500 people were evacuated, the department said earlier.

About 16,000 people returned to their homes by noon local time yesterday, said Harry Hagen, a spokesman for the County of Santa Barbara.

Firefighers “are chasing the fire rather than reacting to it,” Hagen said in a telephone interview.

The blaze has cost more than $6.8 million to combat since it began on the afternoon of May 5, CalFire said on its Web site.

The National Weather Service office in Oxnard, California, forecast a high temperature today of 69 degrees Fahrenheit (21 Celsius) for Santa Barbara, and winds from the northeast at 5 miles an hour (8 kilometers an hour). The temperature tomorrow is expected to rise to 81 degrees, with winds from the south and southwest at as much as 9 miles an hour, the agency said.

Sundowner Winds

The temperature at 7 a.m. today was 57 degrees, the weather service said on its Web site.

During the past week, winds gusted to more than 79 miles an hour, worsening conditions caused by a drought in its third year.

Earlier, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency.

The Santa Barbara blaze was fanned by so-called sundowner winds, which show up late in the afternoon. These high winds are caused when air bottles up in the valleys and then is let loose by a pressure differential between the mountains and the ocean, said Mike Pigott, a meteorologist with AccuWeather.com in State College, Pennsylvania, said yesterday. Those conditions are lessening, he said.

Shrubs in the fire area had collected dried twigs in their canopies for decades, said Max Moritz, co-director of Center for Fire Research and Outreach, at the University of California, Berkeley, in a telephone interview on May 7.

More than 32,000 fires have burned about 1.1 million acres in the U.S. this year, the third-biggest area at the start of a fire season in the past 10 years, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

Last year at this time, 20,473 wildfires had burned about 1.3 million acres.

To contact the reporters on this story: Brian K. Sullivan in Boston at bsullivan10@bloomberg.net; Dan Hart in Washington at dahart@bloomberg.net.

Last Updated: May 10, 2009 11:32 EDT


Southern California Wildfire Grows; 30,500 Flee Homes

By Brian K. Sullivan and Ryan Flinn

May 8 (Bloomberg) -- Dry air and high winds are frustrating efforts to control a California wildfire that has driven more than 30,500 people from their homes on the edge of Santa Barbara and cost more than $2.6 million to battle.

The blaze, which began May 5, is about 10 percent contained and has destroyed or damaged 75 homes, said Jodi Dyck, a spokeswoman for Santa Barbara County’s Emergency Operations Center, which itself had to be evacuated.

Today’s forecast was for temperatures in the 90s Fahrenheit (30s Celsius), with dry air and wind gusts as high as 40 miles per hour (64 kilometers per hour), the National Weather Service said. The fire is about 100 miles northwest of Los Angeles.

“It’s just a continued battle against the weather,” Dyck said by telephone today. “The winds continue, and it is burning in steep areas with a lot of dense vegetation and a lot of fuel.”

The problems caused by the dry, hot winds are exacerbated by a drought that is in its third year, according to the California Department of Water Resources.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who declared a state of emergency, said at a news conference yesterday 125 people were in shelters.

In addition to those who have been forced from their homes, officials estimate 23,000 people live in an area under an evacuation warning, said Richard Morgantini, a spokesman for the county.

Thousands Fight Blaze

More than 2,300 firefighters and 246 engines are battling the blaze, Dyck said. Fourteen air tankers and 15 helicopters are providing aerial support, she said.

The blaze, called the Jesusita Fire, has burned about 3,500 acres (1,416 hectares), the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said in a statement on its Web site. Dyck said it has grown since, although officials haven’t determined its new size.

The blaze caught forest experts by surprise, said Max Moritz, 45, co-director of the University of California, Berkeley’s Center for Fire Research and Outreach, in a telephone interview yesterday.

“It is very early, the plants still appear to be quite full of moisture, and when you look at the ferocity of this wind condition, that’s when you say it is surprising,” he said.

Dead Vegetation Blamed

The National Weather Service in Oxnard, citing a “large amount of dead fuel” that may lead to rapid fire growth, issued a “red flag warning” for the area until tomorrow morning. A red flag warning means conditions exist to promote “explosive fire growth potential,” the agency said.

The high winds are caused when air bottles up in the valleys and then is let loose by a pressure differential between the mountains and the ocean, said Mike Pigott, a meteorologist with private forecaster AccuWeather.com in State College, Pennsylvania.

The winds, which tend to appear in the afternoons, are called “sundowners” and can roar down the valleys, driving hot, dry air through the region, Pigott said in a telephone interview today. Yesterday, a wind gust of 79 miles per hour was recorded.

“We’re worried about the sundowners,” Morgantini said by telephone.

Shrubs in the fire area have collected decades’ worth of dried twigs in their canopy, fueling the blaze, said Moritz. The buildup isn’t caused by years of fire suppression, he said.

“There isn’t any such thing as a low-severity fire in the shrub lands,” Moritz said. “The hot, dry wind event has opened the door to what looks like a catastrophe.”

More than 32,000 fires have burned about 1.1 million acres in the U.S. this year, the third-biggest area at the start of a fire season in the past 10 years, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. Last year at this time, 20,473 wildfires had burned about 1.3 million acres.

To contact the reporters on this story: Brian K. Sullivan in Boston at bsullivan10@bloomberg.net; Ryan Flinn in San Francisco at rflinn@bloomberg.net.

Last Updated: May 8, 2009 16:00 EDT


Fierce California wildfire burns into fourth night

Sat May 9, 2009 2:56am BST

By Lucy Nicholson

SANTA BARBARA, California (Reuters) - A California wildfire burned for a fourth day on Friday above the seaside town of Santa Barbara as firefighters hoped the weather would help them gain a measure of control over the flames that have destroyed 75 homes.

Another 3,500 homes and about 100 businesses remained in immediate jeopardy from the so-called Jesusita fire, which had blackened more than 3,500 acres in the foothills above the picturesque community by the time darkness began to fall on Friday evening. It destroyed 75 homes and forced thousands of people to flee.

No civilian casualties have been reported so far but the blaze has injured 11 firefighters, three of them hospitalized with burns and smoke inhalation.

Crews battling days of hot, dry erratic winds have made little progress in controlling the firestorm but were cautiously optimistic that unexpectedly calm, moist conditions at dusk could give them that chance.

The most dangerous time of day has proven to be nightfall, when the hot, unpredictable "sundowner" winds pick up and fan the flames through steep canyons into neighborhoods of multimillion-dollar homes.


"We have an onshore condition and when the air is coming off the ocean the humidity is fairly high and pushes the fire back away from the community," Santa Barbara County Fire Chief Tom Franklin told a late-afternoon news conference.

"And both of those things are good for now but the predictions are that the sundowner condition is still there," Franklin said. "The wind could change and blow the fire downhill." 

As of Friday evening, about 21,000 area residents were under a mandatory evacuation order with another 10,000 warned that they should be ready to get out at a moment's notice, county officials said.

That amounts to more than half of the population of Santa Barbara, located 90 miles northwest of Los Angeles.

"Right now, if you are not evacuated in the Santa Barbara area, you are sheltering evacuees," city Fire Chief Andrew DiMizio told Reporters. "This has affected the entire community."

He said fire crews fought a heroic battle to keep the blaze from pushing southward through a key park and into the city proper while other teams scrambled to put out roof fires at the edge of town.

Supermodel-turned clothing designer Kathy Ireland was among those who had to flee the fire.

"Santa Barbara fires ... We are OK!" she wrote on her Twitter page on Friday afternoon. "Being evacuated, pls pray for all! Finding place 2stay .. will be in touch when can Thanks! God bless you."

The area's last major brush fire, in November, destroyed more than 200 homes in Santa Barbara and nearby communities. That blaze was blamed on a bonfire started by local students. The latest fire remains under investigation.

(Writing by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Bill Trott)


Calif. wildfire imperils Santa Barbara; homes lost

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. (AP) — Paradise is not lost, but it's in flames — again.

The seasonal wildfires that menace this idyllic coastal city roared to life earlier than usual but with all-too-familiar ferocity, burning mansions to their foundations and forcing about 12,000 to flee. Dozens of homes were destroyed, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said.

"I knew it was time to leave," said Tom Morse, 62, a day after he dusted off his motorhome as the fire neared his Mission Canyon Heights house. "I could see the flames getting close."

The 1,300-acre (2.03-square mile) fire was just the latest to ravage the area known as the American Riviera, home to screen stars, former presidents and Oprah Winfrey. The blaze reached the burn area of another wildfire that just six months ago destroyed about 200 homes in Santa Barbara and Montecito.

The latest fire remained out of control and firefighters were on alert for a predicted return of a "sundowner" — fierce winds that sweep down late in the day from the Santa Ynez Mountains towering close behind Santa Barbara.

Santa Barbara County Fire Chief Tom Franklin said the winds had not returned by Thursday evening, but he warned that "we're not out of the woods yet."

A sundowner on Wednesday afternoon turned a slumbering brush fire on rugged slopes above the city into a towering wildfire that hurled flames into homes and spit embers into more distant neighborhoods.

About 4,700 homes remained evacuated, and another 12,000 people were advised to be ready to leave.

"It started firestorming dramatically," said Gregg Patronyk, a lifelong Santa Barbara resident who grabbed a hose and started wetting his roof when he saw other houses ablaze. "The fire got within 200 to 300 feet of my house.

"There was a lot of pressure to leave," he said. "Police wanted me out and I got a frantic call from my sister, who was walking up the hill to get me. So I packed up the car and left, picking her up on the way."

Nearly 1,400 firefighters from many departments were on the lines, aided by aircraft.

Authorities reported 10 firefighters injured, including three who sheltered in a house during a firestorm. They were in good condition at a Los Angeles burn center but two faced surgery. Other injuries ranged from smoke inhalation to ankle sprains.

Structure losses were still being counted but the numbers were expected to be in the dozens, not hundreds, said Joe Waterman, the incident commander from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Franklin said the destruction during Wednesday's firestorm could have been much worse.

"There maybe should have been hundreds of homes lost due to the amount of fuel in that canyon and the 70 mph winds," he said. "There was some real effort made on that fire front and some real saves that the firefighters made out there."

The city's location on the state's central coast gives it some of the best weather in the world, with temperatures routinely topping out in the 70s, and views of the Pacific Ocean. Now with a population of about 90,000, it dates to the Spanish colonial era of California and a Roman Catholic mission established in the 1780s is a major tourist draw.

Ronald Reagan's Rancho del Cielo in the mountains became his western retreat during his presidency. In 1992 President-elect Bill Clinton and his family spent a pre-inaugural vacation at an estate in nearby Summerland.

Over the decades, celebrities ranging from Charlie Chaplin to Christopher Lloyd and Rob Lowe have been drawn to the area. In 2007, then-presidential candidate Barack Obama made a speech on a Santa Barbara hillside en route to a celebrity-studded fundraiser at Winfrey's estate in nearby Montecito.

But the geography that gives the area beauty and a serene atmosphere also brings danger.

"I'm from the East Coast and at this point I'd rather put up with this than the winter," said evacuee Jim Hatch, 40, an illustrator who returned home to pick up clothes Thursday and motored up Jesusita Road on a baby blue Piaggio scooter to see the fire.

State Assemblyman Pedro Nava fled Wednesday with his wife, two dogs and a cat. They tossed pictures, documents and a few days of clothes into a car and went to the home of a friend.

"I've learned how important preparation is in an emergency," he said. "The public has to be prepared to move, and in Santa Barbara they are prepared. When the police squad car came through with loudspeakers telling us to leave, there was no arguing. And they will all be back."

Morse, the executive director of the environmental group Global Preservation Projects, said he's not surprised by so many fires, blaming it on global warming.

"Temperatures are rising and humidity levels are dropping. It means more fires," he said.

Global warming can't be blamed for specific fires, but it creates conditions that foster larger and more frequent wildfires, scientists say.

"A warming climate encourages wildfires through a longer summer period that dries fuels, promoting easier ignition and faster spread," the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change wrote in 2007.

Hatch, the scooter-riding illustrator, said his wife grew up in Santa Barbara.

"Her family thinks this is normal," he said. "But after living here for 20 years I think the fires are getting worse."

Elsewhere, a southern New Mexico wildfire destroyed three homes and damaged a fourth near the small mountain community of Timberon. It also burned five outbuildings, such as sheds and garages, and 10 vehicles, fire information officer Darlene Hart said. Twenty homes were evacuated.

In southeastern Arizona, winds cooperated Thursday in holding down a wildfire that had destroyed three homes and critically injured a man, officials said. That blaze was 30 percent contained.

Associated Press writers Raquel Maria Dillon in Santa Barbara and Seth Borenstein in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.

Related articles

Wildfires out of control

Edmonton, Alberta, Canada



Friend Daniel Farrer surveys yesterday the property of George and Hughena Granger, south of Highway 28 and east of Range Road 230. (Amber Bracken, Sun Media)

Fires burn near Edmonton

About half a dozen cabins at a Bruderheim-area camp for at-risk youth have been razed by the wildfires that continue to wreak havoc northeast of Edmonton.

"Now we have no facilities for the female campers overnight. We have to develop a tent camp or something for the girls," Vern Johnston, spokesman for Shiloh Youth Ranch, said yesterday.

"We will run our full camp, it's just going to be a little more of an adventure than they might have originally planned, that's all. It's a ranch camp and it's supposed to be rustic, so there you go."


Roughly seven of the camp's cabins and a staff trailer were consumed by the massive blaze sometime Tuesday.

The cabins, now charred concrete and steel skeletons, were worth about $10,000 each, Johnston said, adding that all workers and animals at the camp were evacuated safely.

Strathcona County fire Chief Darrell Reid said firefighters managed to save most of the ranch, including the operation's main buildings.

The fire, originally two separate blazes from Lamont and Strathcona counties that grew into one, has doubled its presence in Strathcona County and covered a total of more than 10,000 hectares as of yesterday afternoon.

More than 100 firefighters from the two counties are being helped by dozens of Alberta Sustainable Resource Development (SRD) workers, who have brought in bulldozers, helicopters and other machinery to battle the blaze.

While the fire continues to spread, Reid - who called it "the largest fire in recent Strathcona County history" - said cooler temperatures, slightly more humid air and showers helped firefighters yesterday morning, but the end is not yet in sight.

A smaller fire in southeast Strathcona County was quickly brought under control yesterday.

Residents of more than 30 homes in the two counties have been ordered to evacuate, though some have been allowed to return to their homes in Lamont County.


Meanwhile, nearby Sturgeon County is facing similar challenges, with four of 22 evacuated homes succumbing to flames in recent days.

"The fires are still considered out of control. They breached in a few places, but (firefighters) managed to beat them back," Sturgeon County spokesman Denise Martell said yesterday afternoon, adding SRD personnel are also helping firefighters in her county. "They're hoping for rain and they're hoping for the winds to die down."

Some residents scrambled to save their properties.

Jim Bindon, who lives at Township Road 572 and Range Road 225, managed to save his house by containing flames to the lawn, but his barn burnt to the ground.

"I've lived here 15 years now and this is nothing new," Bindon said. "This one, however, is the first one to burn right through the property."

Others like Harlyn Mauer and his family decided not to stick around.

The couple and their two children evacuated their home at Township Road 572 and Range Road 224 Tuesday afternoon, grabbing valuables and fleeing to relatives'.





Three wildfires burn along U.S. 31 Saturday

Mon, Apr 13, 2009

SPRING LAKE TOWNSHIP — It took about 30 minutes for firefighters to put out three separate grass fires along U.S. 31 in Spring Lake Township over the weekend.

The Spring Lake Fire Department was called to the fires at around 1 p.m. Saturday, Fire Chief Rick Nuvill said. The three fires were burning for about a mile-long stretch of the highway, he said.

The Norton Shores Fire Department was also called to the fires, Nuvill said. The fires were extinguished in about a half-hour. They were mainly contained to grass and did not threaten any structures, Nuvill said, and no property was damaged.

Tornadoes, Wildfires Tear through Southern US

An aerial view of tornado damage in Murfreesboro, Tenn., 10 Apr 2009

Tornadoes ripped through the southern U.S. state of Tennessee Friday, killing a woman and her baby and causing extensive property damage.

Officials said the storms in the city of Murfreesboro also sent at least 35 people to the hospital.

Authorities said the severe weather blew into Tennessee from the southwest, where on Thursday a tornado in the state of Arkansas killed three people. The governor of Arkansas, Mike Beebe, declared disaster areas in three counties in the state.

Further west, in Texas, officials said at least three people were killed in wildfires fueled by dry, windy conditions.

The fires have destroyed dozens of homes in Texas and the neighboring state of Oklahoma since they started on Thursday. There are reports that one blaze in Oklahoma was intentionally set.  

The governor of Oklahoma, Brad Henry, declared a state of emergency in 31 affected counties.

Some information for this report was provided by AFP, AP and Reuters.


A look at wildfires that swept across North Texas

By The Associated Press © 2009 The Associated Press

April 10, 2009,

Wildfires that whipped across drought-parched counties:

_ Young/Jack counties — 28,000+ acres, 30 percent contained. 127 homes evacuated, seven homes and 36 outbuildings lost in Young County; two homes and 10 outbuildings lost in Jack County.

_ Archer County — 20,000 acres, 75 percent contained, three structures destroyed.

_ Eastland County — 7,000+ acres, 25 percent contained, towns of Cisco and Eastland are threatened.

_ Wichita County — 4,500 acres, 75 percent contained, 800 residences and a nursing home evacuated, two homes and one large commercial building lost.

_ Stephens County — 3,200 acres, 70 percent contained.

_ Shackelford County — estimated 10,000 acres, unknown containment.

_ Montague County — 38,000 acres, unknown containment, fire burned through towns of Stoneburg and Sunset, three citizen fatalities confirmed, estimated 100 homes lost.

_ Jack County — (Roberts Branch) 5,000 acres, unknown containment, 24 homes threatened, two homes lost.

Compiled by the Texas Forest Service on Friday.

Humans cause 3 Gila wildfires Sun News Report
 Posted: 04/10/2009

SILVER CITY — Gila National Forest firefighters responded to three separate human-caused fires in the past several weeks, according to a news release.

The most recent of the three wildfires was the Lincoln Canyon fire in the Mimbres Valley, reported at 12:30 a.m. Saturday morning. A quick response by a local volunteer fire department and Forest Service firefighters resulted in the fire being controlled at 10 acres. The cause of the fire is currently under investigation.

Two additional human-caused fires totaling 15 acres were also reported in late March, the Piñon fire on the Reserve Ranger District and the Monument fire on the Wilderness Ranger District. Both fires have been controlled.

"A wildfire in the wrong place at the wrong time can result in an undesirable outcome," said Loretta Benavidez, fire prevention coordinator. "Human-caused fires generally occur near populated areas or in areas where a wildfire could possibly do more harm than good ... that's why it's important to respond quickly, with the primary emphasis on public and firefighter safety."

The wildfire prevention program is an important part of the overall fire and fuels management program on the forest.

As visitation to the forest increases, especially with the upcoming Easter holiday weekend and as turkey hunting activities begin, it is important for all visitors to remember to practice fire safety.

There are no fire or smoking restrictions in place on the forest at this time, but key fire prevention measures should still be taken.

Before leaving campsites and picnic areas, make sure that campfires are dead out.

Hot charcoal briquettes coals should be discarded appropriately. Keep them away from flammable vegetation.

If you smoke, do so responsibly, use vehicle ashtrays and smoke in areas that are free of vegetation when smoking outdoors.

To report a wildfire, please call 911. For additional information about fire prevention and fire safety, please contact the fire information officer at (575) 388-8245.


Florida County reports 900 acres torched by wildfire

Published: April 10, 2009

BROOKSVILLE - To date, Hernando County has seen a two-thirds increase in wildfires over this time last year, according to a county fire official.
Roughly 900 county acres have been torched so far, including the 650-acre fire last month in the Withlacoochee State Forest. County firefighters dumped some 60,000 gallons of water on that fire, which state officials determined was suspicious.
Hernando County isn't alone. Statewide, there has been double the number of wildfires when compared to last year. All told, 1,570 wildfires have burned 43,565 acres in 2009, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
Much of the blame for the spike in wildfires can be passed onto a deepening drought. While recent rains have flooded the Panhandle, Friday's drought index shows Hernando County in the range of 650-699. The maximum score, meaning desert-like conditions, is 800.
A lengthy cold snap at the beginning of the year was responsible for creating an abundance of dry underbrush. Recent rains have helped green up some of the landscape, but a significant portion of wildfire fuel remains, said Assistant Chief Frank DeFrancesco of Hernando County Fire Rescue.
Unfortunately, "we're still getting into the worst of it," DeFrancesco said.
Up to this point, all of the fires can be attributed to manmade causes, such as arson, vehicle fires, cigarette butts and power lines. But the thunderstorm season will kick off in the next six weeks, bringing with it much-needed rain but also lightning.
"That's our big fear now," DeFrancesco said.
Sunday marks the beginning of Wildfire Awareness Week, which recognizes the 1998 wildfire season that scorched more than 500,000 acres and burned 337 homes.
"… There is a very good chance that we will see an increase in wildfire activity in central and south Florida over the coming weeks and months," Florida Agriculture and Consumer Services Commissioner Charles Bronson said in a prepared statement.
Hernando County is currently under a burn ban, meaning no yard trash can be burned by private citizens. A permit must be obtained from the Division of Forestry for any burning in the county.

Reporter Kyle Martin can be reached at 352-544-5271 or kmartin@hernandotoday.com.


Montague County: Deadly Wildfires


Montague County was among the counties most affected by recent wildfires; the blazes left three people dead.

"It looks like somebody dropped a bomb. Anything that was in its path is gone--totally consumed by the fire," said Montague County Sheriff Paul Cunningham.  Not only did the wildfires claim lives, the blazes also destroyed vegetation, killed livestock, and gutted homes.

The Montague County Sheriff's Department reports that they believe the Quinns, a couple in their 60s, perished in the fires, but official confirmation of the victims' identities is still pending.  The Department believes the couple was trapped in their home by the blaze and unable to escape. It is believed that they stayed behind to fight off flames. These deaths were a tragedy that Sheriff Cunningham feels could have been prevented.

They knew the fire was coming, Cunningham reported. Despite entreaties from firefighters to evacuate their home, the Quinns stayed to battle the fire in an attempt to save their home.  "A house is not worth it, your belongings are not worth it," Sheriff Cunningham says.

Also in the home at the time was the Quinns' son, who is in his 30s. The son suffered third-degree burns to his face, hands, and feet.

Sheriff Cunningham says another man had some sort of health problem during the fire, but died while being transported to the hospital.  Officials blame the fire for attributing to his death.

Most of the blazes are contained, according to Sheriff Cunningham, but the hardest part is a lack of man power and equipment.

"When you face 5 fires at the devastation we had, at one time, you don't have the resources," he says.

Another frustration during the fires was theft. A generator that belonged to an assisting fire department was stolen.

If you have any information on this theft, or if you know of anyone who is in need of shelter, food, or clothes, you are urged to call the Montague County Sheriff's Department at (940)894-2491. 


Former CBS 3 Reporter Dies In Texas Wildfire

PHILADELPHIA (CBS 3) ― Fast-moving wildfires in Texas claimed the lives of former KYW-TV reporter Matt Quinn and his wife last week.

According to WFFA.com, Quinn, 80, his 63-year-old wife Cathy and their son, Chris, were attempting to flee their Montague home when they were overtaken by the intense wildfires Thursday. Mr. and Mrs. Quinn were killed; their son survived and treated at an area burn center.

Quinn was a seasoned reporter who held a number of positions during his broadcast career. He spent time at KYW-TV in the 70s where he worked as a general assignment reporter and anchor. Quinn also co-hosted the political program "Meetinghouse" with the late Jessica Savitch.

"We worked together at KYW then competed against each other in Texas. He never forgot his time in Philadelphia reporting on city hall where he and Mayor Rizzo squared off on more than a few occasions," said former CBS 3 Executive Producer Frank Traynor.

After leaving Philly, Quinn joined the network as an ABC News Correspondent and later moved on to work for WFAA in Texas where he became a household name until his retirement in the 1980s.

"Matt was a great storyteller who let the pictures and sound set the mood and communicate the story to the audience. He very rarely ever wanted to put himself into the story so it is ironic that he became the focus of this tragic story," Traynor said.

According to his obituary, Quinn and his wife are survived by their sons Chris Quinn of Montague, Texas, Gene Quinn of Conyers, Ga., Ted Quinn of Globe, Ariz., and three daughters, Betsy Quinn Krause of Globe, Ariz., Kelley Ferrell of Forney, Susan Costigan of Blackwood, New Jersey. He also had eight grandchildren and a great-grandchild.

(© MMIX, CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved.)

High winds cause damage, feed wildfires;
Clyde schools evacuated for 2 hours

High winds blasted through the Abilene area today, feeding a number of fires, causing damage and disrupting scheduled sports events.

Two Clyde schools were evacuated for about two hours because of a grass fire, and a billboard crashed onto the Winters Freeway that blocked traffic lanes for about 30 minutes.

Firefighters said the fire near Clyde High School was brought under control by about 1:35 p.m. and that no school buildings were burned.

"We’ve got a hold on it right now," Clyde Fire Chief Billy Dezern said. "We are still working numerous hot spots, and we are experiencing very, very high winds, but it's coming under control. None of the school structures are in danger."

The fire near Clyde High School flared up around lunch time, and school officials called in buses to take students to locations away from the blaze.

Clyde students were taken to the First Financial Bank and the First Baptist Church.

An administrative assistant at the school district's main office said it appeared that students were evacuated safely with no injuries. While school district buildings didn't appear to have any fire damage, some of the surrounding school grounds may have been burned by the flames.

A fire at the Howard Johnson Plaza Hotel, in the 5200 block of South 1st Street on the west side of Abilene, produced plenty of smoke but was quickly put out by the Abilene Fire department. No estimate of damage was reported.

The Texas Forest Service responded to numerous fires in the Big Country, including a large grass fire in Breckenridge where over 2,500 acres have burned. A TFS strike force was on the scene and another en route, officials said. At 3 p.m. the fire was about 5 percent contained, TFS spokesman John Calabrese said.

Earlier today, TFS responded to a seven acre fire in Jones County, which was contained quickly.

A wildfire was also blazing on County Roads 585 and 110 on the Brown and Coleman County line, which was threatening structures and forcing evacuations, according to officials at the Brownwood Fire Department.

Fires were also reported in May and Rising Star, north of Brownwood. By mid-afternoon, no structures had been threatened and no evacuations needed.

Another grass fire was reported in Comanche County, near the Indian Ridge Dairy, two miles south of Comanche on Highway 16. At 3:20 p.m. emergency management officials said the fire was fully active, but no structures or livestock were threatened and no evacuations needed.

Authorities reported earlier in the afternoon that a Lamar billboard was blown down and blocked traffic on the Winters Freeway for about 30 minutes. The billboard blocked two lanes of traffic in the southbound lanes between South 14th Street and Southwest Drive until highway personnel dragged it off the freeway about 12:40 p.m.

An officer at the scene radioed back that a second billboard was also vulnerable and could be at risk of crashing down.

A fire in the 2200 block of Industrial Boulevard was also believed to be wind-related, caused possibly by sparking wires, a witness said.

The fire was in the attic at the Overhead Door business on the corner of Sayles Boulevard and Industrial. It was knocked down in about 30 minutes by the Abilene Fire Department, and no injuries were reported. The cause of the fire was still under investigation, although one witness suspected sparking wires.

The wind briefly fed another blaze, a grass fire southwest of Abilene Regional Airport on Colony Hill Road between Oldham Lane and Highway 36. This fire was slowed by a creek embankment and contained by authorities within about an hour after being reported.

An area west of the Winters Freeway near South 14th St. was reportedly without power for a time about the middle of the day, including Bassetti Elementary School. Traffic lights were out in some places.

Because of the high winds, the District 2 class 3A golf tournament in Snyder was postponed until Monday, and the Abilene-Cooper high school non-district softball game was canceled and will not be rescheduled.

The National Weather Service has issued a high wind warning today across the entire Big Country.

Sustained southwest winds of 35 to 45 miles per hour are expected throughout the afternoon, and gusts are expected to exceed 50 mph, according to the NWS. Caution is advised because winds above 55 mph can cause property damage.

After 4 p.m., winds are expected to decrease to 5 to 15 mph sustained winds but with gusts up to 35 mph this evening.

Temperatures today should reach into the mid-80s with an overnight low dropping into the lower 40s.

The next chance of rain in the Big Country will come Saturday with a 20 percent chance of thunderstorms, followed by a 70 percent chance of storms on Easter morning this Sunday.

Texas wildfires force evacuations, injure firefighters


By Matt Strasen, Amarillo Globe-News, via AP

WHEELER, Texas (AP) — Firefighters on Sunday continued to battle several wildfires that erupted across Texas over the weekend.

The largest of those fires, an 11,000-acre blaze near the Panhandle town of Wheeler near the Texas-Oklahoma border, destroyed four homes and damaged about 20 others, according to the Texas Forest Service.

Forest Service spokeswoman Jeanne Eastham said Sunday that the fire was about 25% contained. Strong winds continued to hamper firefighting efforts there and elsewhere.

Many of Wheeler's 1,300 residents were evacuated Saturday after the wildfire jumped the North Fork of the Red River, threatening the town, about 90 miles east of Amarillo. They were able to return home Saturday night.

Meanwhile, a 2,170-acre wildfire in Jack County was about 65% contained Sunday, Eastham said. More than a dozen households were evacuated Saturday night, but were allowed to return home about midnight.

Eastham said the winds and gusts of up to 35 mph were making it difficult to control the fire.

"Anytime you have the wind, it makes it harder to control the fire," she said. "They really have a lot of crews up there to hold that line and reinforce it. And they have assistance from surrounding counties."

Two smaller wildfires were reported Saturday also continued to burn Sunday. A 300-acre blaze in Jeff Davis County was about 60% contained on Sunday. Crews worked late Saturday night and on Sunday battling a 100-acre fire in Nolan County.

Forest Service officials said 24 firefighters were treated for smoke inhalation Saturday. All but four were able to return to work.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Dozens of homes destroyed by wildfires


CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas, April 3 (UPI) -- Wildfires in the Corpus Christi, Texas, area, driven by strong winds, destroyed more than three dozen homes, authorities say.

Live Oak County Sheriff's Office officials said the wildfires outside the Texas city Thursday also destroyed dozens of sheds and vehicles, while causing an unspecified number of injuries, KGBT-TV of Harlingen, Texas, reported Friday.

The primary wildlife was contained thanks to several bulldozers that were used to create fire breaks. Firefighting vehicles from the Texas Forestry Service as well as nearby communities were brought in to help fight the blazes.

While Thursday's fires appear to have been contained, AccuWeather.com said Friday that the high winds that helped spread the blazes has created a high fire danger for the area.

The weather Web site said the winds, which reached speeds of up to 50 mph Thursday, have created a high potential for additional blazes between West Texas to the Arizona deserts.


© 2009 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved.


Wildfires roar across Oklahoma


EDMOND, Okla. (AP) — Several wildfires broke out across Oklahoma Friday, and weather conditions that contributed to the rapid spread of the flames were expected to improve only slightly during the weekend.

No serious injuries have been reported.

A grass fire threatened more than a dozen homes in a new Edmond housing addition before being brought under control shortly after noon, said Edmond Assistant Fire Chief Tim Wheeler.

The addition does not yet have fire hydrants and trucks from Edmond, Guthrie, Deer Creek and Oak Cliff fire departments were hauling in water to help fight the flames.

A fire was also burning in the Weleetka area, about 70 miles south of Tulsa Friday afternoon. There were some reports of damage to businesses, but details were scant. The Oklahoma Highway Patrol closed U.S. 75 through the Okfuskee County town

Entire Oklahoma town flees as fires spread

  • Story Highlights
  • All residents of Taloga, Oklahoma, were evacuated because of fire
  • Entire population of about 400 people allowed back in
  • Wildfires have been burning in northwest and central Oklahoma since Thursday
  • Wildfire also burning near towns of Edmond, Waleeka

(CNN) -- The entire population of Taloga, Oklahoma, was evacuated Thursday because of a raging fire that has burned tens of thousands of acres, officials said Friday.

Wildfire threatens a house in Edmond, Oklahoma, on Friday.

Wildfire threatens a house in Edmond, Oklahoma, on Friday.

All of the residents, about 400, left the Dewey County town, but have been allowed back in, said Bill Challis with the fire department in Clinton, Oklahoma, south of Taloga. Clinton is among dozens of fire departments helping battle the blaze.

Wildfires have been burning in northwest and central Oklahoma since Thursday, according to the state Department of Emergency Management.

A large wildfire also came within inches of homes north of Edmond late Friday morning and was still burning during the noon hour, CNN affiliate KOCO reported.

Oklahoma Department of Public Safey officials also report that one to two city blocks of Weleetka, in Okfuskee County, were on fire, according to KOCO.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has approved the state's request for federal assistance for fighting the wildfire in Dewey County, where Taloga is located.

The original call about the Taloga fire came in Thursday at about 12:30 p.m. (1:30 p.m. ET), Challis said. Officials don't know how the fire started.

Brett Russell, also with the Clinton Fire Department, said about 60,000 acres have burned. There are no reports of anyone injured.

As of about 11 a.m. Friday (12 p.m. ET), the Taloga fire was about 50 to 60 percent contained. About 80 fire departments helping battle the blaze, Russell told CNN.

An Oklahoma Army National Guard Blackhawk helicopter was helping with aerial fire suppression, according to the state.


Major wildfire burns through Linn

The Monitor
LINN — A major wildfire burned through this small town for hours Friday, forcing residents of the Lazy Palms RV Park to flee their homes, said Tony Peña, the Hidalgo County emergency management coordinator.

No injuries were reported, Peña said. However, the fire spread across 1,650 acres and destroyed at least one structure, a mobile home that was not occupied at the time.

Emergency management officials ordered an evacuation of 150 residents at the Lazy Palms subdivision, located near the intersection of Floral Road and Highway 281, and asked residents to take shelter at nearby Brewster School.

"(Emergency personnel) seem to have everything under control," said Burke Kasburg, 63, a Winter Texan from Michigan who was driving his recreational vehicle out of the park about 4 p.m.

"But better safe than sorry," said his wife, Michele, 58.

Others drove off without their RVs, leaving most of their belongings behind.

"We're scared," said Joanne Bahnke, 74, of Wisconsin. "We're leaving right now."

The massive fire broke out shortly before 2:30 p.m. and was 80 percent contained by late Friday night, according to a Hidalgo County statement. Peña said the blaze scorched a large, grassy area between Floral Road and Miller Road near Highway 281.

Emergency personnel from about two dozen agencies were on the scene Friday to help firefighters from the Linn-San Manuel Fire Department put out the blaze as ambulances rushed to transport incapacitated residents away from their homes.

Air tankers from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Forest Service dropped water on the fire and kept it from spreading significantly.

"That's what helped us contain it," Peña said.

Lazy Palms residents were allowed to return to their homes once the fire was contained about 7 p.m.

A press release from the county said the Linn-San Manuel Fire Department would investigate the cause of the fire, but it was "highly suspected that the fire was caused by a hot particle igniting dry grass."


Ana Ley covers law enforcement and general assignments for The Monitor. She can be reached at (956) 683-4428.

Australia Wildfires
Deliberately set by a madman

Australia wildfire death toll reaches 200

MELBOURNE, Australia — A judge launched an inquiry into the deadly Australian wildfires on Tuesday as authorities announced they would find ways to make the region safer before the next season of inevitable blazes.

Police raised the death toll to 200 from the Feb. 7 fires that raged across southern Victoria state, saying it would climb further as more bodies were recovered from the devastation. A firefighter, meanwhile, was crushed by a falling branch — the first death in the fire zone since the disaster.

Former Victoria state Supreme Court Justice Bernard Teague outlined his first steps in what officials say will be one of the largest and most complex disaster investigations ever seen in Australia. The inquiry will determine the cause of the inferno and how to avoid a repeat of its tragic results.

Teague's 40 million Australian dollar ($26 million) commission will submit its report before the next wildfire season in August so the government can take preventative steps.

Teague said he will begin meeting fire victims and authorities within the next two weeks. Court-like hearings will follow with many hundreds of witnesses.

"We want to get out and talk to members of the public to the maximum extent possible and at the end of six months make recommendations for changes in respect to those matters we perceive to be urgent and important," Teague told reporters.

But the recommendations could take months to implement and the next wildfire season, normally starting in early November, will be looming.

"Doing nothing is just not an option," state Premier John Brumby told reporters in Traralgon South, a township hit hard by the fires. "I think the public would think we're not doing our job if there aren't some stronger controls that are put in place going forward."

The nightmarish blazes tore across Victoria with 400 fires destroying more than 1,800 homes and scorching about 1,500 square miles (3,900 square kilometers) of farms, forests and towns.

Police suspect at least two of the fires were deliberately set, and have charged one man with arson causing death and lighting a wildfire. Brendan Sokaluk, 39, faces a maximum sentence of 25 years on the first charge and 15 years on the second. He was being held in protective custody to prevent revenge attacks against him.

A class-action lawsuit was filed against electricity supplier SP AusNet, alleging that defective power lines caused losses and damage in connection with one of the fires. SP AusNet, which is 51 percent owned by the Singapore Power Group, said it would "vigorously defend" the claim.

Firefighters continued to work in dangerous conditions in the smoky wastelands. On Tuesday night a firefighter was killed near Marysville after a tree branch fell on his truck, police spokeswoman Karla Dennis said in a statement.

Authorities confirmed the remains of 11 more people found Tuesday near the town of Kinglake and surrounding areas. The identification process was still under way, and the death count of 200 will rise, police spokesman Marty Beveridge said.

A senior police commander acknowledged that some of the victims would likely never be identified as their remains had disintegrated into ash in the intense flames.

"Fire does terrible damage to bodies and the identification process is going to be a lengthy process and it's going to require scientific examination," police Deputy Commissioner Kieran Walshe told The Associated Press. "In some cases it will be within a few weeks ... in other cases it may well be we're unable to be definitive about the identity."


  Heartbreaking report below .....

From the air, it's like Armageddon
Article from: Herald Sun, AU - John Ferguson
February 09, 2009 12:00am
DEATH'S cruel hand struck with such brutal force. The fires did not discriminate against the young or the old, the well-prepared or the panicked.
The view from the air confirmed the stories on the ground and maybe even added true perspective.
Hundreds of houses flattened, untold hectares of farmland and parks scorched; giant eucalypts rendered little more than black knitting needles on the slopes of the ranges.
There will be many, many lives lost.
Grown men wept as they told of the heat and the wind. Then, they said, came the smoke, the embers and the apocalyptic roar.
Again - understandably - many who were hungry for life tried in vain to out-run nature. Littered across the fire scenes yesterday were the carcasses of cars where the owners had gambled on a last-minute dash to safety.
The desperate fight for life could be seen so graphically from above. Scores of houses were blown apart by the force of the wind, fire and the heat.
From the edge of Whittlesea to within spitting distance of Healesville it seemed like dozens of houses were razed.
We've seen this, but maybe never with the same intensity.
One driver's dash for life could be seen in a paddock between Whittlesea and Kinglake, where a panel van's tyre tracks could be traced for maybe 100m from a house before the nose of the vehicle was dipped into the dam.
Who knows if he made it?
Further towards Kinglake, the destruction really took hold. Some houses survived. Most didn't. The scenes were biblical. "Holy Jesus," our helicopter pilot uttered.
House after house battered to the ground, cars wrecked, property hurled by the winds.
The fires tore through greenhouses, tractors, well-watered vines, sheep, cattle. Not even playgrounds were safe.
Sheets of iron were blown hundreds of metres. Giant trees ripped from the ground.
Just outside Kinglake early yesterday, a small convoy of ambulances was being led into town by the CFA. They would soon come across a weird scene; four cars in a pile-up. All torched.
Firefighters have their rules when it comes to evacuations, but this was a fire response without a creed.
Those that stayed were burnt. Those that fled too late were burnt. Those that survived were dead lucky.
The wine-rich Yarra Valley should be a cradle of happiness. It, too, was affected. Houses taken near Healesville. Vines wilted and burnt.
Some kilometres before reaching Healesville, the fire went nuts, razing every house in its path.
A lonely woman could be seen walking her dogs along a ridge. It was a rare sign of life.
Neighbours joined her and embraced. Around them, needle-stick trees and burnt house after burnt house. Idyllic lives destroyed.
Nothing - nothing - can quite explain the sensation of flying low over the ranges to discover the devastation in and around Marysville.
Another response from our pilot: "It's Armageddon."
It was also very Cyclone Tracy. It certainly was for those in the once-picturesque town.
Maybe 12 houses survived, the rest - and there were many - flattened.
Flames from burning gas outlets leapt into the atmosphere; houses were burnt to the ground, the odd family plaything like a bike a charred mess.
Gone were the main pub and the football club.
Birds, locals said, blown out of the sky. There is horror to be found in that town.
By the side of the road near the main oval, covered by just a blanket, a clump that looked decidedly human.
It was, said a local who inspected the awful scene, a "young woman".
Marysville was an utterly ghostly scene. Two horses roaming the streets unchecked as our helicopter circled above.
Few dared tread its streets. Most evacuated to Alexandra. A couple of older men did. Both wandered the blackened town sobbing. They had lost friends, they had lost the town they loved.
Whatever your beliefs, say a prayer for Daryl Hull. As gas tanks exploded, he had to jump in the lake near the footy oval on Saturday evening to save himself.
"It was pandemonium," he recalled. "I thought, 'Jesus, this is it'."
Family property was affected and for much of his lonely walk through the town he wept.
Just like the old fellow who walked near the blanket with the body. He wept and cursed as well.
The path of destruction didn't stop at Marysville.
This is no cliche: it was exactly like a cyclone had torn through the district.
From Marysville towards Alexandra, scores of trees fell on to the main highway. In Marysville, a small car was crushed by a tree. It seemed too much to even wonder whether the occupants could have lived through the incident.
Same goes for the burnt wreck on the edge of town, a giant stream of water gushing from a burst main into the sky. Only a miracle could have saved those inside.
Just down the road, Buxton burnt as well and locals who fled reported flames 100m high marching towards their houses.
"The cloud plume was like an atomic bomb went off," said concreter Robert Davies.
Rarely do such comparisons seem apt.
Then again, this destructive series of blazes from the Wimmera to Gippsland, Bendigo and in between were the rarest of fires.

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Death toll soars in Australia fires
 Police suspect some of the fires which have swept across southern Australia were deliberately lit [AFP]

The death toll in the bushfires in southern Australia has risen to at least 171 people, as rescue workers moved into towns devastated by the fires.

Firefighters continued to battle more than 20 major blazes early on Tuesday as the state fire authority in Victoria warned of more possible flare-ups across the region.

Nina Cullen of the emergency co-ordination centre in Melbourne, told Al Jazeera: "Two areas are still under wind threat and the next couple of days will be quite critical in fighting those fires."

Police suspect that some of the fires which razed rural towns near Melbourne, the country's second biggest city, were deliberately lit.

 Pictures: Battling the blaze
 Video: Massive devastation in Australian bushfires

Peter Mitchell from Seven News Australia told Al Jazeera the police are investigating the fire which left 5,000 people homeless in Kingslake and killed at least 33 people. 

"That fire started in a pine plantation. It's still not clear whether it was the work of an arsonist, but there's a fire down the Gippsland the police think was deliberately lit and the hunt is on for that pyromaniac."

Two people, including a teenage boy, have reportedly been arrested and charged with arson.

"Everybody's gone. Everybody. Their houses are gone. They're all dead in the houses there," Christopher Harvey, a resident of Kingslake, said.

"There are animals dead all over the road," he said.

Christine Nixon, Victoria police commissioner, told a news conference: "What we've seen, I think, is that people didn't have enough time, in some cases."

"We're finding [bodies] on the side of roads, in cars that crashed."

Anxious wait

Some of the fires eased on Monday but thousands of firefighters and soldiers continued to battle dozens of blazes across an area of about 3,000 sq km across the states of Victoria, South Australia and New South Wales.

Mitchell said firefighters in the affected areas were facing difficulties tackling the blaze as swirling winds continued to spread the fire in different directions.

Residents so far unaffected by the fires were anxiously waiting to see if they would be hit by the devastating infernos.

"People are nervous, we are at the mercy of the weather," James Lacey, a businessman from the town of Yackandandah, said. 

Kevin Rudd, the country's prime minister, said authorities expected the death toll to rise as firefighters and rescuers searched charred buildings and pulled the remains of dozens of people.

"This is of a level of horror that few of us anticipated. There are no words to describe it other than mass murder," he told Australian television.

More than 750 houses have been destroyed and around 80 people taken to hospital with serious burns and injuries.

Many patients had burns to more than 30 per cent of their bodies and some injuries were worse than the Bali bombings in 2002, said one doctor at a hospital emergency department.

Arson investigated

Kieran Walshe, the police deputy commissioner for Victoria state, said the speed at which some of the fires took off indicated they might have been deliberately lit.

"Some of these fires have started in localities that could only be by hand, it could not be natural causes," he said.

Mike Rann, the premier of South Australia state, said on Sunday at least 20 per cent of the fires in his state were started by arsonists and another 20 per cent were the result of "stupidity or negligence".

"These people are terrorists within our nation, they are the enemy within and we have to be increasingly vigilant about them," he said.

Arsonists were also relighting fires that had been brought under control, Steve Warrington, a deputy chief of firefighting operations, told local radio.

"While we often think it is spotting [embers spreading flames], we also know that there are people lighting fires deliberately."

Victoria's bushfires are the worst natural disaster in Australia in 110 years.

*Perilous Times and Global Warming


Death toll at 171 in Australian bush fires: Fears death toll could reach  230

The death toll from the devastating Australian bush fires could rise as high as 230 as rescue teams move into new fire-damaged areas, authorities have warned.

By Bonnie Malkin in Melbourne
Last Updated: 5:48PM GMT 09 Feb 2009

The number of dead has shocked the nation, which is struggling to come  to terms with the extent of the damage wrought by the worst wild fires in the country's history.

The toll from "Black Saturday" currently stands at 171, but the government has warned the country to expect the figure to rise sharply as the search for bodies continues.

Suspicions that some of the more than 400 fires were deliberately set  led police to declare crime scenes in towns in Victoria incinerated by blazes.

Prime minister Kevin Rudd, who has suspended parliament and is touring  the affected region, said whoever was responsible for lighting or relighting the fires had committed "mass murder".

Firefighters are still battling 31 blazes across the state, including fires at Yarra Glen and Heelsville that are threatening homes, and despite a cool change in the weather the threat from the blazes is far from over.

The grim death toll amounts to at least three times the number of lives lost in both the Ash Wednesday fires of 1983 and the Black Friday fires of 1939.

It comes as John Brumby, the Victorian premier, announced a Royal Commission into the tragedy.

Mr Brumby said all aspects of the fires would be investigated and the state's policy that advises people to either leave early or stay and fight to defend their homes would be reviewed.

Australians have responded to the crisis unfolding in the southeastern corner of the country with a tidal wave of donations and support. Charities in the affected areas are overflowing with volunteers, as well  as clothing, food and offer of shelter and accommodation. One neon sign stuck to a tree in Whittlesea even offered bushfire victims a "free wash  and blow-wave".

Forensic teams of investigators are moving into burned out houses and farms, looking for evidence of how the infernos were started, and who could have lit them.

Authorities have warned that the toll from the fires that swept through the state "like a steam train" could still rise, as many people remained unaccounted for.

Relatives of the missing have been warned it could be days before the bodies are identified because the remains are so badly burned it is "like they have been cremated".

A clearly-shaken Mr Rudd struggled to express his horror at the actions of the arsonists.

"What can you say? What can you say? There are no word to describe it  other than mass murder," he said.

"It is a level of horror few of us had anticipated." Keiran Walshe, Victoria's deputy police commissioner, said finding who was to blame for the fires would be difficult, but not impossible.

"There's always something that will tell us where the ignition point was and what was used to ignite it. Then we can start to piece together who could have done it." Police have warned that offenders implicated in the fires could be charged with arson causing death, a crime that carries a 25 year prison sentence.

But the search for the culprits will bring little comfort to the scores of people left bereaved and homeless by the infernos.

On the outskirts of towns gutted by the fires, shellshocked surivors have gathered in relief centres where food, clothing and counselling is being provided by charities and volunteers.

Most have lost a family member or neighbour to the fires.

Others wait anxiously for news of their loved ones they have been unable to contact since the blazes began.

More than 50 deaths came as a result of the massive Kinglake Complex fire. The inferno destroyed the once-picturesque town of Marysville, burning homes, a school and a petrol station to the ground. All that remains of what was once Victoria's favourite honeymoon destination is several piles of ash where homes and businesses once stood.

Stories of the extent of the devastation have started to emerge. In Marysville the body of a woman burnt to death lies covered by a blanket on the side of the road. Black dots underneath trees indicate where animals, confused or frightened by the flames, also perished. There are reports that one man, being airlifted to hospital because of horrific burns, was inconsolable at the thought of leaving behind the bodies of his wife and children.

On man, desperate to get in touch with his wife and daughters, appealed for information about them on national television.

Named only as Sam, he had been prevented from reaching the property where his family had been staying because the roads were still too dangerous.

"I was talking to her on the phone but then she had to go because she said it had got bad and they were blocked in by the fire," he told Channel Seven news.

"I've been trying to get up the mountain but they won't let me up to see if I can find them, I know where to go." But there were also amazing stories of survival. One family sheltered under a wet blanket in a shallow creek as a firestorm raged around them. Another man, who had been playing Playstation in his bedroom when the fire reached his garden, spotted the flames just in time to escape. One mother and her three children outran three separate fires before reaching safety.

Fourteen fires are still burning out of control across the state, with a blaze near Beechworth in the north causing the most concern.

As fire crews around the state attempt to contain the remaining blazes, emergency services are working to clear roads of burning trees and cars and restore power to the homes that are still standing.

Despite cooler temperatures, authorities have warned that firefighters only have a short window of time to control the fires before the temperatures again begin to rise at the end of the week.

Australian Bushfire Death Toll May Hit 300; Police Probe Arson

By Ed Johnson

Feb. 12, 2009  (Bloomberg) -- The death toll from Australia’s deadliest bushfires may reach 300, officials said, as police probe whether the blaze in the worst-hit town of Marysville was lit deliberately.

At least 181 people are confirmed dead in the wildfires sweeping through Victoria state and the coroner is prepared for as many as 300 bodies, Police Commissioner Christine Nixon told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

“We are going house by house, street by street to search for bodies,” Nixon told the ABC’s Lateline program yesterday. Authorities believe “there are clearly more people who have died in this fire.”

The bushfires destroyed four major towns and dozens of hamlets, razing more than 1,000 houses and leaving 4,200 people homeless, according to the Country Fire Authority. As many as 100 of the 500 residents of Marysville, a town 60 kilometers (30 miles) northeast of the state capital, Melbourne, may have died and authorities view that fire as suspicious, Nixon said.

“The direction it came from, the pace it came with, all of those things are a part of the way we investigate a fire,” Nixon told the ABC. “Part of the concerns about Marysville is that it was just unexplained.”

Road blocks are set up around the town to prevent anyone except authorities from entering. Bodies are still being removed from buildings and being identified, Victorian Premier John Brumby said yesterday.

Record High Temperatures

Two weeks of record high temperatures, that reached 46.4 degrees Celsius (115 degrees Fahrenheit) in Melbourne, and hot northerly gales across southeast Australia made conditions over the weekend worse than in February 1983, when 75 people in Victoria and neighboring South Australia died in what are known as the Ash Wednesday fires.

Thirty blazes are still burning across Victoria, with firefighters tackling three major fronts, the CFA said. Milder weather is allowing authorities to build so-called containment lines -- bulldozing away scrub and forest -- to slow the progress of the fires.

Victorian police believe fires in the Churchill area, southeast of Melbourne, were deliberately lit and the arson squad is investigating another 173 sites, CFA Chief Fire Officer Russell Rees said earlier this week.

Two people are “assisting police” in their inquiries in relation to fires in Yea and Seymour, Victoria Police said in a statement today.

People found guilty of arson can expect to be jailed for 25 years, the same penalty that applies to a murder conviction in Victoria, Brumby said this week.

Memorial Service

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s office said the federal government is planning a memorial service for the bushfire victims. “The whole nation stands with Victoria during this time of national tragedy,” it said in a statement.

The Australian Red Cross said its bushfire appeal has raised A$50 million ($32 million).

More than 450,000 hectares (1.1 million acres) of land has been destroyed, according to the CFA. The total damage of the blazes may be more than A$2 billion, Standard & Poor’s said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Ed Johnson in Sydney at ejohnson28@bloomberg.net.

Last Updated: February 11, 2009 20:45 EST


Suspect charged with arson in Australian wildfire

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Police charged a man with deadly arson in one of southern Australia's wildfires and put him in protective custody as survivors expressed fury that anyone could set such a blaze.

Authorities also doubled the property toll on Friday, saying more than 1,800 homes were destroyed in the Feb. 7 blazes. Officials say 181 people were killed and expect that total eventually to exceed 200.

Firefighters were still working Saturday to contain about a dozen blazes, though weather conditions were favorable.

The suspect, whose identity was banned from publication by a magistrate because of the risk of reprisal attacks against him or his family, was formally charged with one count of arson causing death, one of intentionally lighting a wildfire, and one of possessing child pornography, Victoria police said.

Detectives arrested the man Friday and questioned him for several hours in Morwell, 75 miles (120 kilometers) east of the state capital Melbourne, police said. He was charged in a magistrate's court, but did not appear in the courtroom, the Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported.

He was ordered held in custody and to undergo psychiatric evaluation, ABC said. He was taken to Melbourne, where another hearing was set for Monday.

The national news agency Australian Associated Press reported that some people outside the Morwell courthouse shouted abuse at a van that they believed was carrying him away.

"We have a very emotive environment out there," said Victoria Police Assistant Commissioner Dannye Moloney.

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has described the possibility of arson as "mass murder."

In interviews, residents who lost their homes expressed their anger at anyone who might have ignited the fires.

"Words can't describe how I feel about them," Ruth Halyburton told The Associated Press. "I'm a Christian, but I don't think too kindly of people if they go light a match and destroy people's property and lives. They don't have a brain in their head."

Gavin Wigginton, whose home was destroyed, said, "If this person is not insane, then I think he should be in jail for a very long time."

If found guilty, the man faces a maximum penalty of 25 years in prison for the deadly arson charge, and a maximum of 15 years on the second arson charge. Five years in prison is the maximum penalty for possessing child porn.

The arson charges were connected to a fire near the town of Churchill, about 125 miles southeast of Melbourne, that killed at least 21 people. It was one of hundreds of fires that blackened 1,500 square miles of forests and farms in Victoria state.

Experts say arson can be hard to prove. Physical evidence usually goes up in smoke or is taken away by arsonists, said Thomas Fee, a former president of the U.S. International Association of Arson Investigators.

Even more difficult to prove is murder by arson. Wildfires often join one another, making it tough to link a fire set by an arsonist with the blaze that eventually kills people, said Damon Muller, who has researched arsonists for the Australian Institute of Criminology.

The scale of the disaster became clearer Friday, when the state government said it had reached a more thorough tally of homes destroyed and put that number at 1,831 — more than double its earlier figure of 762. The number of people left homeless or who fled their homes and have not returned also rose to 7,000, from 5,000.

Police say they believe at least one other fire — the one that all but destroyed the town of Marysville, about 60 miles north of Melbourne — resulted from foul play.

Marysville is believed to have the biggest toll of any place — up to 100 people killed in a population of 500.

A group of about 300 Marysville residents will be allowed to return to the town Saturday for the first time — one week after the fires. They will be loaded on buses and driven through Marysville, but will not be allowed out of the vehicles.

Police say the town is considered a crime scene and they do not want potential evidence to be disturbed.

"It'll be hard," Halyburton said. "It'll probably be the hardest thing in my life."

She already knows her home is gone, and she and her husband, a pastor, plan to help counsel other residents.

"Our main aim — and we're all behind each other — is to go back and rebuild the town," said Bernie Culhane, 79.