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 Monday, 20 January, 2003, 03:21 GMT
Canberra authorities accused over fires
Man examines ruined home
Nearly 400 homes were destroyed in the fires
Authorities in the Australian capital, Canberra, have been accused of not doing enough to protect the city from bush fires which have left four people dead and thousands more homeless.

Emergency crews battling the blazes which ravaged western suburbs over the weekend say they have brought the fires under control.

CANBERRA - AREAS AFFECTED
But firefighters have warned the blazes could be whipped up again by strong north-westerly winds and temperatures forecast to soar to 37 degrees Celsius (100 Fahrenheit).

The fires, which were sparked by lightning, were the worst in the city's history.

Nearly 400 homes were destroyed and some 2,500 residents forced to flee.

Large parts of the city were left without power and there were reports of people looting.

Answers sought

Angry residents said authorities should have done more to stop the fire from reaching the city and called for an inquiry.

The fires raged out of control to the south of the city for a week before they blew into Canberra.

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I saw some flames that must have been 100 metres high

David, Canberra

Some people complained that fire crews were overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the disaster and left some properties to burn down.

"We saw a few fire trucks coming down the street. But I think they must have thought, 'That one's a lost cause', and carried on to another house," said Phil Bates, a carpenter.

John Stanhope, the chief minister of the Australian Capital Territory, admitted fire crews could not cope at times.

"There are questions that need to be answered," he said. "And there perhaps are some bitter lessons there for us to learn."

Howard shocked

A pall of thick smoke hung over the city on Monday, as residents picked through what remained of their smouldering homes.

Stromlo Observatory
The historic Stromlo Observatory was gutted
Visiting the scene earlier, Australian Prime Minister John Howard was visibly shocked.

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

The cost of the damage was expected to run into hundreds of millions of dollars.

As well as homes, medical centres, schools and thousands of acres of pine forests were destroyed.

More than 1,000 people remained in evacuation centres on Sunday, as authorities warned of a risk of more fires and explosions caused by gas leaks.

  WATCH/LISTEN
  ON THIS STORY
  The BBC's Phil Mercer
"The authorities are facing tough questions"
  Phil Koperberg, New South Wales' rural fire chief
"The next few days are going to be fairly critical"

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See also:

20 Jan 03 | Asia-Pacific
20 Jan 03 | Science/Nature
20 Jan 03 | Asia-Pacific
19 Jan 03 | Asia-Pacific
06 Dec 02 | Asia-Pacific
04 Dec 02 | Business
05 Dec 02 | Entertainment
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