Nov 17, 8:19 PM EST

4 killed in wildfires raging across Australia's southwest as heat wave batters the country

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SYDNEY (AP) -- Wildfires raging across southwest Australia killed four people, officials said Wednesday, as a blistering heat wave swept through the country.

The bodies of four people were found in a rural area north of the town of Esperance, where several fires have been burning since they were sparked by lightning on Sunday, Western Australia police said. Disaster victim identification officers were flying to the small towns of Salmon Gums and Grass Patch, where the bodies were discovered.

The victims were believed to be two men and two women, and officials were trying to confirm reports that the bodies were found in two vehicles, said Western Australia Fire and Emergency Services Commissioner Wayne Gregson. It was not known if they burned to death in the fire, or whether they died in a crash as they tried to flee, he said.

There were no other reports of injuries or missing people, Gregson said. Three buildings were destroyed.

Hundreds of residents have been evacuated and schools were closed as firefighters struggled to contain the blazes, which have been fanned by days of fierce winds and temperatures soaring above 40 degrees Celsius (more than 100 Fahrenheit).

Conditions had improved by Wednesday, with the hot, dry air moving east and out of the region. The temperature was expected to reach just 23 Celsius (73 Fahrenheit) on Wednesday.

The Salmon Gums blaze has burned through 3,000 square kilometers (1,100 square miles) of land, the Department of Fire and Emergency Services said. The area is predominantly agricultural, and is known for its wheat crops.

Mic Fels, a volunteer firefighter and farmer who lives in the Esperance region, said his wife and three children fled their home on Tuesday along with many of his neighbors at the urging of officials. Fels, who has spent 25 years growing wheat, barley and canola at his farm, stayed behind along with a few other residents to try and protect their homes from the advancing blaze. The fast-moving fire came within 25 kilometers (15 miles) of their neighborhood before a sudden change in wind direction sent it north, toward Salmon Gums.

"We were right in the firing line," Fels said. "We were prepared to just get out of its way if we had to, because in a fire like that you can't try to get in front of it."

His home spared, Fels was planning to spend the rest of his day helping fight the fires still raging in the area.

"It's going to be a pretty sad time for the community," he said. "The fact that lives have been lost is shattering."

Destructive wildfires are common across much of Australia during the southern hemisphere summer. In 2009, wildfires killed 173 people and destroyed more than 2,000 homes in Victoria state.

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