Thousands of firefighters battle out-of-control blazes in southern Australia

Friday, December 8th 2006, 9:40 am
By: News On 6

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) _ Thousands of firefighters rushed to contain more than a dozen wildfires burning across southern Australia on Friday amid fears that high temperatures and gusty winds forecast this weekend could further stoke the blazes, threatening farms and towns.

Officials have warned residents in Victoria state's northeast to stay alert should the fires spread and merge, possibly creating a super blaze covering more than 1.4 million acres.

Prime Minister John Howard promised federal assistance to help Victoria battle the blazes.

``It's very, very scary stuff, and the terrible combination of circumstances _ high temperature, low humidity, all of those things _ are very bad indeed,'' Howard told Southern Cross Broadcasting radio. ``I just want people to know that any assistance Victoria needs it will get'' from the government.

Some 2,000 firefighters supported by 30 aircraft, 350 water tankers and 88 bulldozers, have been battling to contain around 18 blazes burning through state forests and Australia's iconic Snowy Mountains, according to Victoria's Country Fire Authority and local media reports.

At least six small townships around 124 miles northeast of Melbourne were under threat from the blazes, which have blanketed much of southeastern Australia with haze in recent days. Victoria's Department of Education on Friday ordered 24 schools closed because of the fire danger.

Wildfires are a regular feature of Australia's hot summer months, raging across thousands of acres of forest and scrubland _ and sometimes in cities and towns, with deadly consequences.

Nine people died in fires on South Australia's Eyre Peninsula in January 2005, including eight people who were burned to death in their cars as they tried to flee the approaching blaze. In 2003, hundreds of houses were destroyed and four people killed when a huge blaze tore into the capital of Canberra.

Although sometimes sparked by lightning, the fires are more often caused by sparks from vehicles, the burning of agricultural land, accidents and arson.