Scores flee as winds fan Australian bushfires

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The Independent Online

With terrifying memories of Australia's deadliest wildfires still fresh in their minds, residents chose to flee rather than stay and protect their homes yesterday when new blazes broke containment lines and threatened the forested fringes of the country's second-largest city.

Many of the victims of the 7 February disaster that officials have labeled "Black Saturday" died in their cars or in the open, and police said they were caught by the flames as they tried — too late — to escape. Since then, officials have stressed that residents of fire-prone areas must pick one of two options and stick with it: leave early when the blaze is near, or stay and fight.

Just two sheds were destroyed in the Melbourne suburb of Belgrave South before the fire threat eased yesterday, but the panic served as a reminder of how jittery Australians remained 16 days after the disaster that killed more than 200 people.

The Country Fire Authority had reported Monday night that a house was burned in the fire, but Department of Sustainability and Environment spokesman Stuart Ord said early Tuesday the earlier report was incorrect.

"We (water) bombed that fire heavily from the air and managed to save all houses," Ord told Nine Network television.

At least two new fires broke out in southern Victoria state where temperatures soared into the mid-80s Fahrenheit (low-30s Celsius) and strong gusty winds changed directions, blowing the fires first one way then another.

Meanwhile, another fire that had been burning for more than a week flared and sent wind-carried embers raining down in populated areas of Melbourne, the state capital.

Two of the more than 100 firefighters who fought the blaze in Belgrave South suffered minor injuries, said Kevin Monk, another environment department spokesman. Yesterday's fire burned almost 5,000 acres of land, the fire authority said.

The fire authority downgraded the threat from the fire in Belgrave South last night, and said threats from fires burning near Daylesford, northwest of Melbourne, and Warburton to the east also eased as the evening brought cooler temperatures and the wind dropped.

Authorities had warned at the weekend of the possibility of more fires. Many residents said the carnage of the Feb. 7 fires made the decision to flee or stay an easy one.

"I'm no hero — take the house," one unnamed woman told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. television as she prepared to leave Warburton.

Relief centers in nearby towns filled with people who had loaded their cars with photos, clothes and other personal belongings and left their houses to wait out the emergency.

Dawn Brown and her husband Ray left their home in Yarra Junction on Monday with some family heirlooms and their wedding video. She said the disaster two weeks ago influenced their decision to leave in plenty of time.

"I would've liked to stay a bit longer but Ray said, 'No we're going and we're going now,"' Dawn Brown told ABC.

Hundreds of fires swept a vast area of Victoria on Feb. 7 when record temperatures of around 117 F (47 C) and 60-mph (100-kph) winds and forests dried by years of drought combined into infernos that destroyed more than 1,800 homes and displaced more than 7,000 people.

The confirmed death toll rose today to 210 and was expected to rise as more remains were identified from the ruins.

Princess Anne toured the disaster zone on Monday, a day after attending ceremonies to mark a national day of mourning for the victims. She met emergency workers and schoolchildren in the town of Wandong, about 30 miles north of Melbourne.

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