Melbourne: Australia mourned the victims of its worst-ever wildfires a year ago on Sunday with solemn ceremonies in big-city cathedrals and barbecues in small towns still bearing burn scars.
On February 7 last year, hundreds of fires raged across southeastern Australia as temperatures soared and powerful winds whipped blazes into firestorms. By the end of the day, 173 people were dead and more than 2,000 homes razed.
Sun-baked Australia endures hundreds of wildfires every summer that scorch vast areas of forest and farmland and sometimes cause deaths. But the scale of death and destruction on the day now dubbed Black Saturday deeply shocked the country.
"The loss of so many men, women and children was almost too much to bear and their absence still weighs heavily on their communities and all of those who loved them," John Brumby, Premier of Victoria state where the worst fires blazed, said on Sunday in a condolence message.
Flags on government buildings were lowered to half-staff on Sunday, and Australians were asked to observe one minute`s silence at noon. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was among dignitaries who sang hymns and prayed at a nondenominational service at St Paul`s Cathedral in the southern city of Melbourne that was broadcast nationally.
At Marysville, where most houses were gutted by fire and 34 people died, survivors gathered at a sports field that became a refuge for many as flames roared around them on Black Saturday. Green shoots of new growth sprung from many eucalyptus trees surrounding the field, though their trunks were still charred black.
Addressing the roughly two dozen people at the gathering, Marysville resident Rod Lyesfield spoke about the heartbreak of trying to rebuild after the fires killed his wife and two sons.