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 Tuesday, 21 January, 2003, 07:40 GMT
Canberra on alert for new fires
Residents in Canberra prepare to evacuate their home due to approaching bush fires, 20 Jan 2003
Some residents have already decided to flee
Thousands of people in the Australian capital, Canberra, have been put on evacuation alert as bush fires threaten to again sweep into the city.

The Emergency Services Bureau said shifting winds and rising temperatures were posing a persistent threat.

The fires killed four people and destroyed more than 400 homes at the weekend, causing damage running into millions of dollars.

I saw some flames that must have been 100 metres high

David, Canberra
Firefighters have constructed a 23-kilometre (14-mile) firebreak outside the city in the hope of preventing the fires from reaching people's homes.

The authorities have been accused of not doing enough to prevent the destruction at the weekend, but they argued that the blaze was simply too ferocious to control.

Officials placed 13 suburbs in Canberra's north-west on alert on Tuesday, warning that the blazes could be whipped up again by strong north-westerly winds and temperatures of up to 37 C (100 Fahrenheit).

On Tuesday afternoon, the main fire front was about five kilometres (three miles) away from the city northern suburbs.

Some residents have been hosing down their houses, while others have been packing their bags.

"We've had the bath filled since yesterday, we've got hoses in the gutters, towels in the downpipes and the car is packed," Melissa Campaign, 26, told Reuters news agency.

Tuesday's alert follows criticism from angry residents who lost their homes in weekend fires that the authorities had not done enough to protect the capital.

Police confirmed that 402 homes were destroyed on Saturday, in the worst fires in the city's history.

Angry residents

One man, on a street where only four out of 15 homes remained standing, said residents should have been warned of the potential danger from fires burning south of the city for a week before they blew into Canberra.

Jon Stanhope, ACT's chief minister has ordered an inquiry into the weekend's fires, but urged people not to blame firefighters.


New South Wales Rural Fire Service Commissioner, Phil Koperburg, said that the fires were unstoppable.

"All the defences in the world could not have stopped this fire," he said. "This was the perfect fire."

But the fire brigade union said homes could have been saved if the operation had been better co-ordinated.

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

Visiting the scene on Monday, 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.

  The BBC's Phil Mercer
"Once again the Australian capital is at the mercy of nature"
  Dr Richard Betts, UK Meteorological Office
"I don't think we would attribute the current disaster to global warming"

Key stories

See also:

20 Jan 03 | Asia-Pacific
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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