Officials warned on Tuesday the wildfires that devastated southern Australia this month could flare anew when high winds and hot temperatures sweep the region later this week, and raised the death toll from the blazes to 210. Australia's insurance council, meanwhile, reported thousands of claims totaling more than a half-billion dollars in damage from the February 7 fires that tore through Victoria state.
Four major fires are still burning in the region, and officials warned that temperatures are expected to rise on Friday to the high 90s Fahrenheit (high 30s Celsius) and be accompanied by strong winds.
"It is important that people understand the events of Black Saturday are not over," Victoria state's Emergency Services Commissioner Bruce Esplin said, referring to the Feb 7 fires. "The devastating fire season continues."
Hundreds of fires swept a vast area of Victoria when record temperatures of around 117 F (47 C) and 60-mph (100-kph) winds and forests dried by years of drought combined into infernos. The confirmed death toll rose on Tuesday to 210 and was expected to climb further as more remains were identified from the rubble. Firefighters were continuing to battle the blazes while bracing for the expected change in conditions.
"We have to do our very best to manage both the fatigue amongst our crew, but keep going hard enough so we can contain these fires and prepare for Friday," state Country Fire Authority chief Russell Rees said.
Esplin said at least 2,029 homes had been destroyed in the fires _ up from the previous tally of 1,800 homes _ and the Insurance Council of Australia on Tuesday reported that 6,230 claims totaling 790 million Australian dollars ($510 million) had been lodged. Meanwhile, a funeral was held Tuesday near Australia's capital, Canberra, for a firefighter killed last week while fighting the blazes in Victoria. Around 500 mourners attended the service for David Balfour, who died after being struck by a tree. Some 7,500 people have been displaced by the fires, and entire towns lay in ruins. Some sites remained sealed off by police as they searched for bodies and evidence of arson. One man has been charged with starting one of the deadly fires, and arson is suspected in at least one other.