Police say the death toll from wildfires in Australia has risen to 76, making it the country's worst fire disaster.
Authorities said the toll would climb further as they reached further into a huge zone of southern Victoria state that was devastated by scores of blazes during intense heat and strong winds on Saturday.
Officials said they had confirmed some 700 homes had been destroyed in the fires that in some cases have razed entire towns. Victoria police spokeswoman Rebecca Fraser said the latest death toll is 76.
Australia's deadliest fires were in 1983, when blazes killed 75 people and destroyed more than 3,000 homes in Victoria and South Australia
The number of dead rose steadily throughout Sunday as rescue crews reached townships that bore the brunt of the most intense firestorm northwest of Melbourne, which survivors likened to a nuclear bomb.
"It was a most horrible day. It's going to look like Hiroshima I tell you, it's going to look like a nuclear bomb," said Chris Harvey, a resident of Kinglake, one of the worst-affected towns. "There's animals dead all over the road."
Many people apparently died in their cars as they attempted to escape the inferno, while others were caught in their homes.
The fires flared late Saturday, fanned by high winds following a once-in-a-century heatwave that sent temperatures soaring to 46 C (115 F), and continued to burn out of control Sunday.
Rescue services were also fighting huge blazes to the north in New South Wales state. At least two children were among the dead, while Melbourne's Alfred Hospital admitted 20 people suffering serious burns.
"Unfortunately, there are some who will not survive," trauma specialist John Coleridge told reporters.Australia's deadliest bushfires killed 75 people in Victoria and in neighbouring South Australia in 1983.
But officials said current conditions were even worse, with the ground tinder-dry after a prolonged drought.
residents "These fires have been very fast, very violent and very ferocious," Victoria Police Deputy Commissioner Kieren Walshe said.
He said the deadly fire northwest of Melbourne was believed to have claimed six victims in one car at Kinglake and another three in a vehicle at Strathewen.
"The worst thing that people can do is make a rash last-minute decision (to flee) and get trapped in their cars," NSW Rural Fire Service spokeswoman Rebel Talbot told Sky News. Victoria state's Country Fire Authority said only one building was left standing in the popular tourist hamlet of Marysville, where one person was killed.
"Marysville, which was one the loveliest townships in Victoria, if not Australia, has just about been wiped out," said pastor Ivor Jones, whose own home in the town was destroyed.
Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard said whole towns would need to be rebuilt and the federal government was preparing a massive disaster relief effort.
arsonists Witnesses told of trees "exploding" with the intense heat and fire fronts racing out of control.
Marie Jones said she was staying at a friend's house in Kinglake, where at least 18 people perished, when a badly burnt man arrived with his infant daughter, saying his wife and other child had been killed. "He was so badly burnt," she told the Melbourne Age's website.
"He had skin hanging off him everywhere and his little girl was burnt, but not as badly as her dad, and he just came down and he said 'Look, I've lost my wife, I've lost my other kid, I just need you to save (my daughter).'"
Police Deputy Commissioner Walshe said there was no doubt that arsonists were behind some of the fires.
Emergency vehicles gather as firefighters battle a blaze near a structure in the Bunyip State Forest near the township of Tonimbuk, in Australia's Victoria state.
"Some of these fires have started in localities that could only be by hand, it could not be natural causes," he said.
NSW Premier Nathan Rees said arsonists faced a maximum 25 years' jail.
"We will throw the book at you if you are caught," he said. "This is not fun, this is not clever, this is something that can kill people."
Victoria state Premier John Brumby warned there was no end in sight for the disaster.
"It's not over yet by a long shot," he said.