Thousands flee new Australian fires threat

Australian firefighters bracing for a renewed threat from wildfires that killed more than 200 people were cautiously optimistic they had prevented the blazes flaring again on Friday.

Thousands of anxious residents fled their homes amid warnings that temperatures approaching 40°C and high winds would create conditions similar to the lethal firestorm of February 7.

More than 3 000 firefighters backed by water-bombing helicopters and planes were on high alert in case four major fires burning in rural Victoria state threatened lives and property.

They quickly doused a number of small fires that broke out around the fire-blackened countryside at Arthurs Seat, east of the state capital Melbourne, Ararat, further north and the tourist town of Warrnambool.

But the major fires remained in containment lines painstakingly carved out with bulldozers, chainsaws and spades to create a fuel-free buffer zone around the flames.

“Crossing our fingers, it seems we may have got through most of it,” said Kevin Monk of the Department of Sustainability and Environment.

US helicopter pilot Dave Sisek, who has been dropping water on the flames from his massive Erikson Sky Crane, said the high winds expected
to send flames racing across the countryside were not as strong as originally feared.

“The fires are still burning out there but they’re not moving, they’re burning in on themselves,” he said.

Thousands of anxious locals abandoned their homes to seek safety in evacuation centres or at friends’ and relatives’ houses.

With just a tent to shelter in and a few treasured possessions, many at the Lilydale evacuation centre, on Melbourne city’s eastern fringe, waited tensely beside the radio for fire news.

Ursula Lorenz and her husband, Horst, left their home in Three Bridges township for the third time in a fortnight.

Surrounded by forest and farmland, the couple said their property would be in great danger if a nearby fire advanced.

“We’re in a state of perpetual nervousness,” said Lorenz.

“If we just had a bit of rain, just a bit, it would be so good.”

Warburton resident Yvette Koula said mass evacuations had left her home resembling a “ghost town”.

“The atmosphere’s been very tense and eerie for the past two weeks,” said Koula.
“People just want to get on with their lives now, they’re sick of the fires.”

Authorities warn wildfires will remain a threat until April unless rain falls in Australia’s parched south-east.

Volunteer firefighter David Spooner, who lost his wife and son in the February 7 inferno, urged anyone in fire zones to get out early.

“After our experience, I’d consider leaving right now, particularly if you live in an area where there is only one road in and out of the place,” said Spooner.

“In a normal bushfire year you do stand a chance but with the conditions now, with all the dry foliage and undergrowth and what not, I’d go, I’d just go. I wouldn’t hang around,” he told local commercial
radio. - AFP

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