Residents flee as Australian bushfires return

Residents flee as Australian bushfires return

24 February 2009

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Australia — Terrified residents fled their homes in southern Australia yesterday after strong winds fanned back to life wildfires that killed more than 200 people this month.

The day after Australia observed a day of mourning for the victims of “Black Saturday” — when the worst bushfires in the country’s history destroyed about 1,800 homes — at least two new fires sprang up in Victoria state.

Residents were urged either to leave their homes early or to stay and fight the flames — but after the devastation of February 7 that choice was an easy one. “I’m no hero — take the house,” one woman said as she prepared to leave her home in the town of Warburton.

Some of the blazes have been burning for weeks and had mostly been contained by firefighters hosing down the edges and building firebreaks.

After several days of moderate summer heat, however, temperatures climbed to about 35C (95F) yesterday and winds caused one fire to flare up again.

The Country Fire Authority (CFA) said that at least one house was destroyed in the suburb of Belgrave South, Melbourne, as a fire reached the forested fringes of the city. Two firefighters suffered minor injuries fighting the blaze.

Relief centres in nearby towns filled with people who had loaded their cars with photos, clothes and other personal belongings after leaving their houses because of the emergency.

At least two of yesterday’s fires were new, started by embers carried by winds from other fires or unknown causes, the fire authority said. The conditions were less severe than on February 7, when temperatures hit a record 47C and winds reached 60mph (100km/h).

The new fires started as the Princess Royal was touring the remains of the town of Wandong, north of Melbourne, where she promised to make a personal donation to the Australian Red Cross Bushfire Appeal Fund set up to help survivors. As she visited emergency workers and survivors, she was told harrowing, first-hand accounts of lives lost and whole townships destroyed.

“She has obviously been greatly affected by what she’s seen over the last 24 hours or so,” her spokeswoman, Ailsa Anderson, said. She added that the donation would be made on the Princess’s return to Britain.

Sharon Hibbert, a CFA volunteer who described to the Princess how she had saved her own home before racing to save others, said: “It’s a fantastic thing for us after what’s happened to know that somebody from the Royal family wants to know what happened here.”

About 7,500 people were displaced by the fires and entire towns lie in ruins. 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 deadly fires, and arson is suspected in at least one other.

Kevin Rudd, the Prime Minister, and John Brumby, the Premier of Victoria, announced yesterday that the Federal Government would pay all the clean-up costs for people affected by the fires.

It is also to introduce legislation to allow state authorities to set up early warning systems using telephone and text messages, after complaints that many people were given no warning of the fires.

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