EY (AFP) - Fourteen people died and more than 100 homes were destroyed in wildfires raging through southeastern Australia Saturday, with arsonists suspected of starting several blazes, police said.
"We have 14 confirmed deceased. We don't know how many more, we are concerned it is possible these numbers could rise up to about 40," said deputy police commissioner Kieran Walshe. "We base that on the fact we're only just getting into these areas now to search buildings and properties.
High winds fanned more than 50 fires across three states and tens of thousands of hectares (acres) in tinderbox conditions as a once-in-a-century heatwave topped 46 degrees Celsius (115 Fahrenheit).
All those killed were caught up in a raging blaze northwest of Australia's second-biggest city of Melbourne, Walshe said, with six believed to have died in one car trapped in the fire.
Arsonists were believed to be responsible for some of the nine major fires raging through Victoria state.
"We suspect a number of the fires have been deliberately lit," Walshe said. The most deadly blaze started some 80 kilometres (50 miles) north of Melbourne in East Kilmore and swept 30 kilometres eastwards through several small townships including Wandong, Strathewen and Clonbinane to Kinglake.
"The whole township is pretty much on fire," Kinglake resident Peter Mitchell told ABC Radio. "There was no time to do anything ... it came through in minutes. There'll be a massive loss of houses ... there'll be a lot of us homeless.
"All those who have made it into town will be fine. The others will be sheltering and working on their fire plans, God help them."
Mitchell said he was sheltering with around 200 residents in the local pub and that no fire trucks could get into the town.
At least 100 homes were destroyed by the fires, the environment department said.
The deadliest bushfires in Australia's history killed 75 people in Victoria and in neighbouring South Australia in 1983.
"Today Victoria has experienced the worst fire conditions in history, even worse than Ash Wednesday of 1983," Victorian Premier John Brumby said in a statement.
The region has roasted in extreme temperatures for the past fortnight, with 29 homes lost to fire last week, hundreds of heat-related hospital admissions and dozens of deaths " mostly the elderly. Melbourne recorded its hottest-ever February day Saturday, peaking at 46.4 degrees by mid-afternoon, with temperatures soaring above 50 degrees in some parts of the state.
Scorching heat and wind gusts also fed more than 45 fires in neighbouring New South Wales state, home to the nation's biggest city Sydney.
Fire authorities said new blazes were putting "enormous pressure" on their resources, with all available trucks and more than 3,000 firefighters already committed to fighting the bushfires. The fires were so big they were creating their own weather and forming a thunderstorm effect, said senior weather forecaster Terry Ryan.
"We call it pyrocumulus, where all the ash coming out of the fire causes lifting and convection, and can cause a thunderstorm-looking top," he told the ABC.
"You can get thunderstorms and lightning coming out of the top of the fire basically, and that can add to the fire's effect, a bit of a nasty feedback effect that can occasionally happen."