Australia on bushfire alert as fire destroys homes

  • World
  • Sunday, 01 Jan 2006

By Dmitry Zhdannikov and Ron Popeski

SYDNEY (Reuters) - A large bushfire destroyed five homes in Victoria state as thousands of firefighters remained on high alert throughout southeastern Australia on Sunday in the face of soaring temperatures and hot gusting winds. 

A fire near the town of Stawell in western Victoria gutted five houses and damaged others late on Saturday, authorities said, with scores of blazes reported in Victoria, South Australia and Australia's most populous state, New South Wales. 

Gusting hot winds took the temperature to more than 42 degrees Celsius (108 F) in Melbourne, and temperatures above 43 degrees with hot winds were forecast for much of New South Wales on Sunday. 

Victoria's Country Fire Authority said the Stawell fire had burnt out about 9,000 hectares of grass and scrub and could pose a risk to several towns in the region because of a forecast wind change. 

"We're treating it as extremely serious and the wind shift is causing us concern," spokesman Alex Twomey said. 

A ban on lighting fires in the open is in place across New South Wales and much of Victoria and South Australia until midnight on Sunday. 

In January 2004, Australia's deadliest bushfires in 22 years killed nine people and injured dozens in South Australia. The blazes were the worst since the Ash Wednesday bushfires claimed 75 lives in South Australia and Victoria in 1983. 

In 2003, bushfires destroyed a slice of Australia nearly three times the size of Britain, fuelled by one of the worst droughts in a century. Four people were killed and 530 homes destroyed when fire swept through the capital, Canberra, that year. 

In 2002 and 1994, devastating bushfires destroyed scores of homes in Australia's biggest city, Sydney. 

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