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Australians urged to flee wildfires: officials

world Updated: Oct 20, 2009 11:16 IST

AFP
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Residents were urged to leave their homes on Tuesday as erratic winds brought wildfires dangerously close to hundreds of suburban properties in Australia's northeast, officials said.

Flames up to four metres (13 feet) high were rushing towards the suburbs of the city of Rockhampton, north of Brisbane, from the Mount Archer National Park, where a fire has been burning for 11 days, authorities said.

"Residents who plan to leave ahead of the bushfire should relocate now," the Queensland Fire and Rescue Service said.

"Currently, 25 fire crews and aircraft are working to contain the blaze but firefighters may not be able to protect every affected property and residents should not expect a firefighter at their door," it added.

Aerial water-bombing was underway to saturate bushland behind homes in one suburb, but authorities said erratic winds were stirring sparks, smoke and ash, hampering the efforts of crews on the ground.

Residents who wished to stay and defend their homes would not be forcibly evacuated, the fire service said, adding that "well-prepared and defended homes can offer safety during the fire and may be defendable".

About 10 blazes are raging across the state, where fires have been burning now for more than three weeks, destroying one home. A near-total ban on lighting fires has been extended there until next Monday.

In February, bushfires killed 173 people in the southeastern state of Victoria, eradicating entire towns and destroying thousands of homes in a firestorm known as Black Saturday.

Fearing even worse conditions this southern hemisphere summer, authorities this month announced a new "Code Red" warning for catastrophic wildfires which would require residents to abandon their homes.

A parching El Nino weather system was highly likely to intensify over southeastern Australia in coming months, bringing extensive drought and ideal wildfire conditions, officials have warned.

Victoria and its neighbouring states are in the grip of a decade-long drought, and experienced a run of record-breaking temperatures in the weeks before the fires, leaving uncleared bushland tinder-dry.