January 27, 2006

Cooler weather, rain calms Australia bushfires

CANBERRA -- Cooler conditions and a little rain calmed deadly bushfires in the Australian state of Victoria on Saturday and allowed weary firefighters to make some headway in their battle, but authorities warned the crisis was not over.

Firefighters managed to control one of the four most dangerous blazes -- three of which are less than 100 km (60 miles) from Melbourne, Australia's second-most-populous city -- but the rest are still burning out of control.

Hundreds of people have evacuated their homes as stretched firefighting resources tackle the blazes that have now burned more than 150,000 hectares (370,000 acres), an area more than double the size of Singapore, killed three people and razed 24 homes.

Earlier this week numerous towns and communities were directly threatened by the blazes as burning embers rained down on them and strong winds and temperatures peaking above 40 Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) hampered firefighters.

"We're looking at fairly favorable weather conditions until Tuesday but there hasn't been a lot of rain," said Craig Ferguson from Victoria's Department of Sustainability and Environment.

"It won't take much to get us back in the same predicament we were last week. People have to keep in mind it's not over yet."

Severe thunderstorms have been sweeping Victoria, but while the patchy rain has been welcomed, lightning has sparked some new blazes and threatens to wreak more havoc in the coming days.

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 whose tanker rolled during mopping-up operations.

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

Australia is scarred by bushfires every summer and every few years bushfires blaze into major cities which have fingers 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.