3RD ROUNDUP: Australia's forest fire toll climbs - 173 dead

Australia's forest fire toll climbs - 173 deadSydney  - The body count reached 173 on Tuesday in Australia's devastating wildfires, more than doubling the death toll from the country's previous worst forest fires in 1983.

Authorities in the south-coast city of Melbourne said army bulldozers are clearing the path for forensic teams to enter hamlets cut off by Saturday's inferno.

In tiny Strathewen, which only had a population of 450, 26 bodies have been found so far.

Forest fires, which are common in the torrid southern hemisphere summer, claimed 75 people in 1983 and there are fears that more than three times that number could have perished in the weekend blazes north of Melbourne.

At least 750 houses were lost, 350,000 hectares of forest blackened and whole towns obliterated. The popular mountain resorts of Kinglake and Marysville, 100 kilometres north-east of Melbourne, have barely any buildings left standing.

Marysville has been declared a crime scene because police believe the fire there was deliberately lit. Police say half of forest fires are deliberately lit.

Insurance company Allianz estimates that industry-insured losses from the fires could top 500 million Australian dollars (325 million US dollars).

With fires expected to burn for weeks, brigades are being drafted in from around the country and even from abroad.

New Zealand has 100 firefighters on stand-by to send and a team from the United States could be on the fireground later this week. (dpa)

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