Sun, Feb 08, 2009 - Page 4 News List

Raging wildfires fuel fear in Australia

‘WORST DAY’: With weekend temperatures of up to 47°C and strong winds in the country’s southeast, fire authorities say the conditions are perfect for firestorms

AP , SYDNEY

An Australian Country Fire Authority fire truck fights a bushfire at the Bunyip Sate Forest near the township of Tonimbuk, Victoria, Australia, yesterday. Authorities have issued urgent fire warnings to towns near a bushfire burning out of control east of Melbourne.

PHOTO: EPA

Raging wildfires destroyed at least three houses and a golf club in Australia yesterday, as extreme conditions fueled fires and fear across the country’s southeast and crews battled scores of blazes.

Tens of thousands of volunteer firefighters were mobilized or on alert across three states to try to contain fires that burned for the most part in forest parks and other unpopulated areas but that threatened about a half-dozen towns.

In southern Victoria state, at least three houses, some sheds and a golf club were destroyed in a fire that seared 1,800 hectares near the sheep-farming town of Horsham, fire official John Haynes told Australian Broadcasting Corp radio.

A fire truck was also lost to the blaze, with no injuries reported.

Australian Country Fire Authority spokeswoman Adele Buhagiar said the exact number of houses ruined was not known.

No deaths or injuries have been reported in the dozens of fires burning across Australia’s southeast corner, where scorching temperatures and strong winds cause what authorities described as conditions perfect for deadly firestorms.

Forecasters say a heat wave that has stewed millions of people in Victoria and South Australia in the past two weeks would extend into New South Wales state and peak at the weekend with temperatures of up to 47°C.

“It’s just going to be, probably by a long way, the worst day ever in the history of the state in terms of temperatures and winds,” Victoria Premier John Brumby said of yesterday’s conditions. “If you don’t need to go out, don’t go out. It’s a seriously bad day.”

Most of the fires burning yesterday were being contained by thousands of volunteer firefighters manning hoses and building firebreaks at the edges. Tens of thousands more were standing by, along with water-bombing planes and helicopters, New South Wales Rural Fire Service chief Shane Fitzsimmons said.

At another fire in Victoria, in the Bunyip State Park near the main city of Melbourne, fire crews were pulled back because it was too dangerous. Only water-bombing aircraft would be used until conditions improved, state fire service official David Nugent said.

In Sydney, a pall of smoke hung over the city from three fires burning in the Hunter Valley region to the north, fire service spokeswoman Rebel Talbert said.

Crews battled to keep several uncontrolled fires away from homes.

Wildfires are common during the Australian summer, as rising temperatures bake forest land tinder dry and blustering winds fan embers.

Some 60,000 fires occur each year, and about half are deliberately lit or suspicious, government research said. Lightning strikes and human activity such as use of machinery near dry brush cause the others.

Backyard barbecues and using power tools was banned yesterday in high-risk areas.

New South Wales’ health department spokesman Jeremy McAnulty said officials were prepared for extra emergencies.

“More people get seriously ill and death rates can increase, so it’s really important that people remember ... keep cool, keep well-hydrated, look after your neighbors and rest up,” McAnulty said.

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