Smoke blankets Australian state

Smoke blankets Australian state

9 December 2006

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Australia — Large areas of south-eastern Australia are swathed in smoke assome of the worst bush fires for nearly 70 years threaten mountain and countrytowns.

The fires in the state of Victoria, mostly in eastern alpine areas, haveburned at least 180,000 hectares (445,000 acres) of drought-hit land.

There are fears that the blazes could merge into one “super fire”.

Bush fires are common in Australia’s hot summer months, but this year’s arebeing described as exceptional.

People in Victoria are recalling the state’s “Black Friday” in1939, when 71 people died in fires.

No-one has been killed in the latest emergency, but firefighters say expectedrising winds and high summer temperatures mean extreme danger through theweekend.

It is feared some of the fires, mostly sparked by lightning strikes, couldburn for months.

The Australian army has been mobilised to back up local firefighters, who arealso being helped by crews from beyond Victoria, as well as a specialist teamfrom New Zealand.

The state government’s environment spokeswoman, Rachaele May, said it was a”significant possibility” that all of the fires would eventually mergeinto one larger fire.

“It’s the worst drought on record for Victoria, which means all the forestand grassland is extremely dry,” she told the Australian BroadcastingCorporation.

Thick smoke has grounded aircraft used in operations to dump water on theflames, while smoke drifting hundreds of kilometres has blanketed the statecapital, Melbourne, cutting visibility and disrupting passenger flights.

Australia’s largest airline, Qantas, reported flight delays of up to an hourfrom Melbourne.

A flight from Los Angles was diverted to Sydney, while a domestic flight fromSydney was diverted to the national capital, Canberra, to refuel.

Nine people died in fires on South Australia state’s Eyre Peninsula inJanuary 2005.

In 2003, more than 500 houses were destroyed and four people killed when ahuge fire tore through the capital, Canberra.

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