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Aus firefighters battle new danger

MELBOURNE, Feb 25 – Reinforcements were called in to the fight against Australia’s deadly wildfires Wednesday in a race to build defences ahead of a dangerous new blast of searing heat and wind.

Scores more fire-fighters from New Zealand and across Australia were to join more than 3,000 already battling seven major blazes in Victoria State, where more than 200 people have been burned to death, officials said.

The lethal combination of high temperatures and strong winds which sent walls of flame roaring through towns and villages on February 7 are forecast to return on Friday, though not to the same degree.

"I don’t think anyone wants to overstate what could happen on Friday, but people need to be prepared, need to be alert, be vigilant," said Bruce Esplin, Victoria’s emergency services commissioner.

"Going into Friday we’ll be expecting new (fire) starts, and also that some of the fires we’re patrolling and working with at the moment will re-light," said environment department spokesman Ewan Waller.

With no homes under threat as milder weather brought some relief in recent days, fire-fighters have worked around the clock to establish control lines against resurgent fires.

Officials have warned that without significant rain, the fires could burn until April.

At least 210 people were killed in the fires earlier this month, and police said Wednesday up to 30 were still unaccounted for.

However, they cautioned that not all of those reported missing had necessarily died, or even been in fire areas at the time.

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"Whilst we hold grave concerns for those who have not been heard of since the fires, it may be that they have just not registered with the Red Cross," said deputy commissioner Kieran Walshe.

Revised figures this week showed 2,029 homes were destroyed in the fires, with more than 6,000 insurance claims lodged, totalling 775 million dollars (504 million US).

Some 450,000 hectares (1.1 million acres) have been burned out in Victoria since the fire season began in November.


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