National News Brief, Wednesday February 11

Australian bushfires death toll nears 200; New Zealander dies in fire with three children; Kopu Bridge replacement to top infrastructure spending; South Island treaty settlement to include Ka Mate rights; sheep numbers hit 1950 lows; and more

The Australian bushfires still dominate the newspapers in this part of the world, as the death toll nears 200. The New Zealand Herald's Greg Ansley asks 'How could so many die?' then admits there is no simple answer. Victorian politicians had warned of massive fires over the weekend and emergency services were on high alert, but "lifestylers" moving into rural areas were "less prepared than previous generations for fire". The DominionPost says the death toll could reach 300, with 26 fires still burning around Victoria. The Otago Daily Times tells the story of wildlife have been devastated by the fire, including the heartening tale (and photograph) of a Koala rescued from the charred woodland.

A 36 year-old mother of three from Whakatane, Tina Wilson, has become the first New Zealander confirmed dead in the bushfires. Her partner, Sam Gents, told TV3 his wife died with her three children after she called to tell him they were trapped and trying to stay safe in their own home. A team of New Zealand police forensic experts head to Australia today to help identify victims, the Press reports. Up to 100 firefighters are expected to follow.

In stark contrast, flooding damaged homes and closed roads in Manawatu and Wanganui. Surface flooding stretched from Terrace End to Botanical Rd in Palmerston North after 49 mm of rain in five hours. Authorities said it was the worst downpour in 50 years.

The government is to announce its well-signalled $500 million infrastructure stimulus package today. Many details have been leaked however, with the Herald saying the $32m Kopu Bridge replacement will top the bill. Construction could begin before the end of the year. John Key said the money would be spent upgrading and insulating state homes, while the DomPost reports that the Waikato Expressway and Puhoi motorway north of Auckland are likely to be included in another package later this year.

A $300m treaty settlement to be signed today will end claims in the South Island, the Press reports. Eight iwi, currently representing 12,000 Maori and covering much of the upper South Island, will receive $171m in cash and $128m in Crown forest land. The Herald says a special provision has been made as part of the deal with Ngati Toa Rangatira to recognise its rights to the haka Ka Mate. The iwi won't affect use by the All Blacks or New Zealand public, but could see the iwi having some say over commercial use.

MPs yesterday voted unanimously to ask the Remuneration Authority not to increase their pay this financial year, and Governor-General Anand Satyanand followed suit. John Key said he was "sure judges and the like" would take a similar view.

And finally, the Otago Daily Times reports that sheep numbers have slumped to levels last seen in 1950, with just 33.9m grazing on our nation's hillsides. That's less than half the peak of 70m in 1982 when the government was paying subsidies. The number of dairy cows is up six per cent to 5.6m.