January 2, 2006

Cool weather helps dampen Australian bushfires

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Cooler weather and light rain across
southeastern Australia on Monday helped contain scores of
bushfires that destroyed 15 homes and vast areas of farmland
over the weekend.

Firefighters said 27 bushfires continued to burn across the
most populous state of New South Wales on Monday, and could
take up to four days to fully control, although there was no
immediate threat to homes.

Up to 50 fires flared across the state at the weekend,
fueled by strong winds and temperatures that hit 44 degrees
Celsius (111 F) in some areas.

"There are literally thousands of hectares of fire there
and it's going to take us about four days to get round all
these fires and mop them up," New South Wales Rural Fire
Commissioner Phil Koperberg told reporters.

One ambulance volunteer died of a heart attack while
helping people evacuate their homes north of Sydney, while one
volunteer firefighter was seriously injured fighting a blaze at
Junee, in the state's west, where fire killed livestock and
burned about 25,000 ha (62,000 acres) of farmland.

Among the properties affected was a farm belonging to
national government powerbroker Bill Heffernan, a senator from
New South Wales and a key political adviser to Prime Minister
John Howard.

Heffernan told Australian Associated Press he lost
thousands of sheep and some cattle on his 1,400 ha (3,500
acres) property near Junee in a fire which came to the edge of
his home on Sunday.

"You couldn't see where the fire was -- it was just all
dust and smoke, and the next thing the flames were there," he
said. "It was a bugger of a day."

Thousands of firefighters had been put on high alert before
the extreme weekend weather conditions and the lighting of
fires in the open was banned across most of southeast

Fires also struck South Australia and Victoria states on
Saturday, with one blaze destroying seven homes in western
Victoria and threatening several townships before the weather
eased and rain helped bring the fires under control.