Resurgent wildfire threatens Australian town

Resurgent wildfire threatens Australian town

12 February 2009

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Australia — Australian officials on Friday issued an urgent warning to residents of a southeastern town to be vigilant as one of the wildfires that have killed at least 181 people threatened the area.

The town of Healesville northeast of the Victoria state capital Melbourne could come under “ember attack” from a resurgent fire burning less than three kilometres (two miles) away, fire authorities said.

“The fire’s been backing down a gully, it’s obviously either reached some dry fuels or, in fact, in a gully, sometimes in a gully we have erratic winds,” said environment department spokesman Stuart Ord.

Residents should patrol their properties and put out any burning embers that might land, he said.

Healesville resident Adam Menary told national radio that people in the town were anxious.

“I think down in the town of Healesville, it’s a bit harder to see where the fires are so it seems more foreboding that these fires are surrounding the town,” he said. “It’s a pretty tough time for people.”

About 21 wildfires were still burning across Victoria but firefighters took advantage of cooler conditions Thursday to backburn and dig containment lines, and most threat warnings were dropped.

Temperatures were however expected to rise again next week, and it is feared that lightning strikes ahead of the new blast of heat could spark more fires.

The state was hit by record high temperatures last Saturday when a swarm of wildfires raced through tinder-dry forests and bush, destroying entire towns.

Officials have warned that the death toll is expected to rise to more than 200.

Arsonists are believed to have started some of the fires, and state police chief Christine Nixon said Friday investigators were closing in on them even as new fires were being deliberately lit.

“Last night, we did, in fact, have two fires that were lit and in one case we have a suspect that we’re talking to,” Nixon said. “The other one we’re very clear about who the person is.”

Nixon has pinned the blame for one fire that killed at least 21 people in the Churchill district firmly on arsonists and says they are also suspected over a major blaze that flattened the town of Marysville.

The death toll in Marysville stands at 15, but it is feared that it could rise to 100 as the grim task of searching through charred rubble for bodies moves forward.

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