Page last updated at 12:03 GMT, Sunday, 1 February 2009

Australia battles with bushfires

By Nick Bryant
BBC News, Sydney

Two volunteer firefighters stand in the burnt-out ruins of their house in Darlimurla, south-east of Melbourne, after wildfires ripped through the area
Nearly 30 homes have been lost

A record-breaking heat wave in south-eastern Australia has left firefighters struggling to contain bushfires in the state of Victoria.

But meteorologists say that the mercury is set to dip below 40C (104F) for the first time in days.

Health officials report more than 20 heat-related deaths, mainly among elderly people.

Almost 30 properties have been claimed in the fires, some of which authorities fear were started deliberately.

Over 25 homes have been destroyed in the Gippsland region of rural Victoria, their owners helpless in the face of an advancing wall of flames.

Electricity line

Some 500 firefighters have been tackling the blazes, which have burned through over 6,000 hectares (15,000 acres) of forestland. The authorities now believe some of the fires were started deliberately.

Over the past 24 hours, saving properties has perhaps been less of an urgent priority than keeping the fire away from a major electricity transmission line that serves Melbourne, Australia's second most-populous city.

Spectators watch a match at the Australian Open in Melbourne, Australia on Wednesday
Tennis fans have had to put up with a grilling at the Australian Open
Melbourne, which is presently hosting the grand slam tennis tournament the Australian Open, has already experienced massive disruption.

A surge in demand for air conditioning has led to power cuts and rolling black-outs. Traffic lights have ceased working in parts of the city. On the trains, buckled rail lines have led to widespread cancellations.

Public health officials have reported six heat-related deaths, while the death toll in Adelaide, in neighbouring South Australia, is higher.

Relief may be in sight. Weather forecasters predict that temperatures will fall below 40C - and there might even be the possibility of rain.

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