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Page last updated at 08:25 GMT, Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Winds stoke Victoria fire fears

US helicopter and crew resting, east of Melbourne, 27 Feb 09
Thousands of firefighters have come to Victoria from Australia and overseas

Strong winds are ripping through the Australian state of Victoria, where four major bushfires are still burning.

Three thousand firefighters are battling the blazes and 2,000 more are on stand-by in case the gusts open up new fire fronts.

Almost 400 schools have been closed in the state and millions of text messages sent out warning of the fire danger.

Last month, more than 200 people were killed in southern Australia by fast-moving bushfires.

Cleared lines

Many Victorians awoke to rain and cooler temperatures than were forecast, reports the BBC's Nick Bryant, in Sydney.

But state authorities have warned against complacency, because of the threat of gale-force winds and because the rain did not fall in fire-affected areas.

Strong gusts, and the danger of falling tree branches, have already forced firefighters to pull out of bush land to the north of Melbourne.

The fire-fighters are working to control four large blazes that have been burning for three weeks.

Containment lines - cleared areas up to 60m (200ft) across - are currently holding the fires in check.

Forecaster Evan Morgan told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that strong winds would continue into the night.

Bushfires have been burning in Victoria for a month now, sparked by high temperatures and a prolonged drought.

Police are also investigating whether some of the blazes were man-made; one man has been arrested.

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