January 27, 2006

Storms bring little relief from Australian bushfires

By Michelle Nichols

CANBERRA (Reuters) - Thunderstorms sweeping across the
bushfire-ravaged Australian state of Victoria dampened some of
the deadly fires with patchy rain, but lightning sparked a new
blaze and threatens to wreak more havoc in the coming days.

Hundreds of people have evacuated their homes as four large
blazes burned out of control and stretched firefighting
resources. Three of the fires are less than 100 km (62 miles)
from Australia's second-largest city, Melbourne.

Country Fire Authority Deputy Chief Officer Graham Fountain
said light rain in some areas brought some relief to hundreds
of weary firefighters and people who had stayed to protect
their homes from the burning embers raining down on them.

"However, unfortunately it wasn't enough to assist with the
extinguishment of the fires totally," Fountain told Reuters,
adding that lightning sparked a fire 70 km (44 miles) northwest
of Victoria's biggest blaze in the Grampians National Park.

The Grampians fire has burned through more than 120,000
hectares (300,000 acres) of land, an area the size of Hong
Kong, and has a fire front of 350 km (220 miles). It has razed
24 homes and killed 61,000 sheep.

"There is concern that there could be more lightning with
the storms as they progress over the next couple of days. But
hopefully we will have enough rain to bring some relief and
some extinguishment to some of these major fires," Fountain


The Bureau of Meteorology issued a new severe thunderstorm
warning on Friday afternoon.

"The critical time is now on us today, tomorrow and the
next day before we expect some cool change to occur across
Victoria," Victorian state Premier Steve Bracks told reporters.

The Victoria blazes have killed three people, a father and
son whose car was engulfed in flames after they crashed while
racing to save a family home and a firefighter who was killed
when his tanker rolled during mopping-up operations.

Fountain said that while the light rain and a small drop in
temperatures from the peaks above 40 Celsius (104 Fahrenheit)
earlier in the week had eased the bushfire threat to many towns
and communities, people should not become complacent.

Earlier this month, several homes north of Sydney in New
South Wales and in western Victoria were destroyed by

Australia is scarred by bushfires every summer and every
few years there are fires in major cities, such as Sydney, that
have strips of bushland weaving through suburbs.

In January 2004, the deadliest bushfires in 22 years killed
nine people and injured dozens in South Australia. The blazes
were the worst since Ash Wednesday bushfires claimed 75 lives
in South Australia and Victoria in 1983.

In 2003, bushfires fueled by one of the worst droughts in a
century ravaged a slice of Australia three times the size of
Britain. Four people were killed and 530 homes destroyed when
fire swept through the capital, Canberra, that year.