Bush fires in Australian capital kill two, destroy hundreds of homes

The Canberra suburb of Duffy is alight as wildfires burn in the near pitch black afternoon sky Saturday. Dozens of homes have been lost and thousands have been forced from their homes. At least one person is reported dead. The Australian Capital Territory is declared to be in a state of emergency.

The Associated Press
Published: Sunday, January 19, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 19, 2003 at 2:42 a.m.

CANBERRA, Australia - A fire swept into Australia's capital Saturday, destroying hundreds of homes and forcing thousands to flee. Three people were killed, police said.

Emergency services said early Sunday that 388 homes were destroyed by the flames, Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio reported.

Prime Minister John Howard interrupted his summer vacation to tour the fire-scorched suburbs Sunday.

"I have been to a lot of bushfire scenes in Australia ... but this is by far the worst," Howard said.

Damages were expected to total hundreds of millions of dollars as the fires razed homes, schools, medical centers and thousands of acres of pine forests, said John Stanhope, chief minister of the Australian Capital Territory.

The historic Stromlo Observatory on a hill outside the city also was feared lost.

"It is the most devastating bush fire experience that any community in Australia has ever suffered," Stanhope said.

A mist of fine ash blew through the streets and the moon shone red through a thick pall of smoke hanging over the city late Saturday. Weaker winds allowed hundreds of fire fighters to tackle three major blazes raging around Canberra's edge.

"We are now beginning to set strategies for the rest of the day," fire service spokesman John Winter said. "Hopefully as long as these winds stay down we'll be able to start to do some backburning work but that is ... going to only be secondary to continuing to try to protect property as the fires begin to move."

A state of emergency was declared in the Australian Capital Territory on Saturday as temperatures soared and powerful westerly winds fanned blazes into suburbs on the north, south and western edges of Canberra.

More than 20 percent of the city was without power Sunday morning and embers continued falling on houses, triggering fears more homes would be destroyed.

Helicopters clattered over the remains of houses reduced to tangles of charred timber and bricks surrounded by scorched, black lawns. On the city's edge, emergency workers plowed up vast tracts of land in an effort to halt the fire's spread.

Jason Walker's suburban Lyons home survived, but his neighbors both lost their homes. The fire consumed his garage and burned up to his back door.

"I'm like the pawn in the middle," he told ABC radio. "I do not know how I survived."

A city of 320,000, Canberra is set amid rolling hills and forests about 220 miles south of Sydney. Saturday's blazes were the most devastating ever to hit the city.

One man died of smoke inhalation while trying to save his house, and an 83-year-old woman was found at her home in Canberra. A 37-year-old woman also was found dead at her home in the suburb of Duffy, police said.

"It is a day of enormous sadness that we have lost a resident to the fire," Stanhope said. "A number of Canberrans have been seriously injured, perhaps up to 100 families have lost their homes.

"What we experienced today is a once in 100 years or 200 years experience."

A Canberra Hospital spokesman said more than 50 people were treated for smoke inhalation and burns. Two women with serious burns were flown to Sydney for treatment.

"It's a serious situation," fire service chief Phil Koperberg said. "We don't have all the resources ... to deal with the totality of the problem."

Indeed, many residents reported no firefighters in their streets. They battled flames using garden hoses and buckets filled from swimming pools.

Koperberg urged residents not to panic.

"It is critical that people do remain calm and recognize that often the house is the safest place to be," he said.

One official said some of the fires could have been started deliberately although most were started a week ago by lightning strikes in a nearby national park.

Thousands of people took shelter in three evacuation centers.

"We have got 1,500 to 2,000 here," said Frank Duggan, who was running one of the centers. "We have counselors, we have support staff running around trying to help people. In a situation like this it is all hands to the deck."

Bronwyn Lowe said she left her home to protect horses at an equestrian center as flames bore down on them.

"We managed to save the center but we have lost our house, we have lost our car ... we have lost everything," she told ABC radio.

Peter Lucas-Smith, who was controlling fire crews around Canberra, said there was little his forces could do to battle the blazes in treacherous conditions.

"Fortunately they don't come around very often and you've really got to fall back and look at property protection, and the safety and welfare of your people and the community," he said.

Thousands of firefighters and troops across southeastern Australia were battling fires.

The Snowy Mountains, about 280 miles southwest of Australia's largest city, Sydney, were hard hit, as about 1,000 tourists were evacuated overnight from the Thredbo ski resort. Hundreds more people were evacuated from area villages.

Australia is in the grip of a yearlong drought that has left much of the countryside parched and vulnerable to fire. Once fires start, they roar through dry undergrowth and into oil-filled eucalyptus trees, creating infernos that are all but impossible to put out.

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