Tue, Feb 24, 2009 - Page 5 News List

Aussies flee homes as winds fuel fears of fresh firestorms

AP , MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA

Scores of people fled their homes in southern Australia yesterday fearing that rising temperatures and strong winds could fan blazes burning in forests into unstoppable firestorms.

Tensions were high in Victoria, where devastating fires swept a vast area of the state on Feb. 7, destroying more than 1,800 homes and killing more than 200 people in the country? worst fire disaster.

Some of the blazes have been burning for weeks in the state, though all fires were being contained in unpopulated areas by firefighters hosing down the edges and building firebreaks.

But after several days of temperatures in the high 20s Celsius, temperature went up into the mid-30s Celsius yesterday while gusting winds caused at least two fires to flare and threatened to carry glowing embers into new areas.

Residents were warned to either leave early or prepare themselves to fight the fires.

Country Fire Authority officials said properties around Upwey on the eastern verge of the state capital of Melbourne and at Enoch Point, about 80km northeast, could be under threat.

Simon O?allaghan, a member of the Yarra Ranges Shire Council, said more than 100 people left their homes near Enoch Point early yesterday.

?t? a precaution in terms of getting people out early,?O?allaghan told Australian Broadcasting Corp radio.

The conditions were far less severe than on Feb. 7, when record temperatures of around 47慢 and 100kph winds created what officials have dubbed ?lack Saturday.?br />

The confirmed death toll stands at 209 and is expected to rise as more remains are identified from the ruins.

Queen Elizabeth II? daughter, Princess Anne, toured the disaster zone yesterday, a day after arriving in Australia to attend ceremonies marking a national day of mourning for the victims.

Some sites remain sealed off by police as they search for bodies and evidence of arson. One man has been charged with starting one of the fires and arson is suspected in at least one other.

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Victorian Premier John Brumby announced yesterday that the two governments would pay all the cleanup costs of people affected by the fires.

Brumby said a contractor would be selected by the end of the week to begin demolishing damaged buildings and clearing away rubble.

Families would each get cleanup services worth up to A$25,000 (US$16,000).

?he cleanup task is absolutely crucial to getting on with the task of rebuilding,?Brumby told reporters in Melbourne.

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