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 Sunday, 19 January, 2003, 11:35 GMT
Australian capital ringed by fire
A house ablaze in Canberra
Hundreds of people suffered burns or smoke inhalation
Bush fires around the Australian capital Canberra have killed four people and destroyed hundreds of suburban homes.

The local authorities have declared a state of emergency and evacuated more than 2,000 people to schools and community centres.

CANBERRA - AREAS AFFECTED
There are fears that predicted hot weather and high winds on Monday will revive blazes which firefighters have battled to control.

Three fires in the north-east of Victoria state merged into one massive blaze, and emergency crews were trying to prevent flames reaching homes in Sydney.

Prime Minister John Howard, visiting the capital, said it was the worst fire devastation he had ever seen.

"A man, a veteran of World War II, showed me his charred medals... One lady, clearly traumatised, said she had lost everything," Mr Howard told reporters.

Phil Bates outside his fire-destroyed home
There was just this big curl of flame, it was like a big whirlwind

Phil Bates
The state's Chief Minister Jon Stanhope said such events only happened once every 100 or 200 years and had never before been seen in Canberra.

"It was simply beyond us," he said.

Police found a 37-year-old woman dead at her home in Duffy, together with another, as yet unidentified, body. A man died of smoke inhalation in the same suburb on Saturday.

An 83-year-old woman was killed in the outlying Stromlo area.

Two serious burn victims were flown 350 kilometres (220 miles) north to Sydney, while more than 50 others were treated for burns and smoke inhalation in Canberra.

Police estimate that up to 400 houses have been engulfed by the flames, which have also cut off electricity and gas supplies in some areas.

Tinderbox

By Sunday evening, firefighters were planning new defences against the fires, which were expected to gain in force.

TALKING POINT
I saw some flames that must have been 100 metres high

David, Canberra
Temperatures on Monday were forecast to hit 38 C (100 F) after a relative respite of 31 C on Sunday.

"The whole philosophy is to surround [Canberra] either with the black that is burned or bulldozer lines," said Mike Castle, director of emergency services, told a news conference.

Mass evacuation

The BBC's Phil Mercer says Canberra is a city under siege.

There are fears nine separate fires could merge to form a giant unstoppable wall of flames.

In suburbs such as Duffy, fire provided the only light as the flames devastated streets of houses.

Phil Bates had renovated his home to put it up for sale on Sunday. Now it has been destroyed.

"There was just this big curl of flame. It was like a big whirlwind," he said.

"Then big chunks of embers started coming over and I thought: 'It's time to get out of here'."

Drought

Fires have also been raging in Victoria state, where the resort of Mount Hotham was evacuated after flames broke through containment lines.

A Canberra street where neighbouring houses have been destroyed
Whole streets of houses were destroyed
Vast swathes of land in the Snowy Mountains, south-west of Sydney, and the Kosciusko national park have also been destroyed.

New outbreaks have occurred to the north of Sydney, and are being controlled by firefighters.

Wildfires are common during the Australian summer, but a year-long drought has made areas more vulnerable than usual to serious outbreaks.

  WATCH/LISTEN
  ON THIS STORY
  The BBC's Phil Mercer
"The city's worst ever natural disaster"

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See also:

06 Dec 02 | Asia-Pacific
04 Dec 02 | Business
04 Dec 02 | Asia-Pacific
10 Nov 02 | Asia-Pacific
08 Nov 02 | Asia-Pacific
05 Dec 02 | Entertainment
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