PERTH (AFP) - A bushfire has burnt through a historic town in Western Australia, razing 95 homes and leaving three people unaccounted for, officials said on Friday (Jan 8).
The out-of-control blaze 110 km south of Perth more than doubled in size in 24 hours and has now burnt through 53,000 ha, with a third of the town of Yarloop destroyed.
"I believe we've had what I would suggest (are) catastrophic losses within Yarloop," the state's Fire and Emergency Services commissioner Wayne Gregson told reporters.
"It appears that we've lost around 95 houses, a number of structures within the town site including some of the historical buildings."
Mr Gregson said three or four people had minor injuries as a result of the blaze, which was fanned by strong winds. "Sadly we have three people unaccounted for from Yarloop," he added.
Yarloop has a population of 500-600 with an estimated 250 homes.
Aerial footage showed houses reduced to just their brick fireplaces, leaving only blackened ground and the burnt-out shells of vehicles.
Yarloop resident Ron Sackville told 6PR radio there was "very little" left.
"I look around 360 degrees and everything is burnt to a cinder. The fire was horrendous," he said.
Another resident described the overnight emergency - initially triggered by a lightning strike - as like the town was being hit by "fireballs".
"It was crazy. One fireball after another. The wind... it was unbelievable," Mr Alex Jovanovich told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
"It's devastating," he said of the damage. "There's bugger all left. The hall is gone. I believe the pub's gone. The workshops are gone. The old hospital is gone. I think the church is gone."
Hundreds of firefighters were battling the blaze, which has prompted evacuations and an emergency warning for nearby towns and surrounding areas.
"You are in danger and need to act immediately to survive. There is a threat to lives and homes," an official warning said.
Bushfires are a common feature of Australia's summer, with four people dying in November in Esperance in Western Australia's far south, and another two perishing in South Australia.
"The fire is still uncontrolled, it is still very, very unpredictable," Mr Gregson said.