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Fires and floods hammer Australia

Australia, Feb 6 – Wildfires threatened homes and new flooding forced evacuations in embattled Australia, as officials warned that last week\’s monster cyclone would compound economic woes.

Hot and gusty conditions whipped up by Cyclone Yasi, a top-level tropical storm that ripped into Australia\’s northeast coast Thursday, fanned an out-of-control blaze on the outskirts of Perth on Sunday, endangering about 20 homes.

"The bushfire is moving fast in a northwesterly direction. It is out of control and unpredictable," the Fire and Emergency Services Authority in western Australia said in a statement.

"There is a threat to lives and homes."

High winds forced the grounding of water-bombing aircraft, and residents in the fire\’s path were warned they were in danger and needed "to act immediately to survive".

More than 150 people fled the roof-height flames for evacuation centres on the west coast, as the southeastern state of Victoria paused to mark two years since the "Black Saturday" firestorm that claimed 173 lives.

Fire-ravaged towns were among those those hit by Yasi-linked flash floods overnight which forced thousands of people from their homes in Victoria, still reeling from widespread flooding last month that also hit northeastern Queensland state.

Mildura — a city of some 50,000 residents — had a year\’s worth of rainfall in a single day, swamping 200 homes, thanks to Cyclone Yasi.

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"We are heading for some major problems in Victoria and this is going to strike people as really cruel, given that Victoria is about to mark the second anniversary of the devastating bushfires," said Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

Flooding rains were also forecast for Alice Springs, in Australia\’s red desert centre.

Yasi was one of the largest storms to ever hit Australia, and Treasurer Wayne Swan warned it would only compound economic woes brought by the Queensland floods — the recovery from which is set to cost an estimated Aus$5.6 billion ($5.6 billion).

"Even at this early stage, it\’s clear that severe damage was done to crops, buildings and infrastructure in affected areas," said Swan.

"The region impacted by the cyclone contributes around (Aus)$1 billion of agricultural production annually, and initial reports suggest at least half of that has been wiped out this year."

Tourism would also be hit, he added, with the cyclone region accounting for about five percent of Australia\’s tourist earnings.

Swan said the cyclone devastation to sugar and banana crops would add at least 0.25 percentage points to inflation in the March quarter, on top of the 0.25 percentage points already brought by the floods.

Analysts have put the damage to Australia\’s agricultural sector as a result of the recent disasters at Aus$1.4 billion.

Canberra has announced a one-off tax on higher-income earners to help meet the cost of rebuilding from the floods.

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But Gillard vowed not to increase the levy and said recovery from the cyclone and fresh Victoria downpours would be funded through spending cutbacks.

"There are no easy choices left now, so in making further budget cuts, there is going to be some pain around and people are going to have to recognise that," she said.

Australia\’s wild weather has been linked to an especially strong La Nina event, traditionally bringing drenching rains and cyclones to the vast southern continent.


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