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Thousands flee new Australian fires threat

Thousands of anxious Australians in the country's scorched southeast fled their homes Friday as wildfires which killed more than 200 people threatened to intensify.

world Updated: Feb 27, 2009 09:52 IST

Thousands of anxious Australians in the country's scorched southeast fled their homes Friday as wildfires which killed more than 200 people threatened to intensify.

More than 3,000 firefighters were on the ground attempting to contain four major blazes ahead of a dangerous change in afternoon winds, as temperatures climbed towards 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit).

Thousands of anxious locals abandoned their homes for the safety of evacuation centres, with authorities warning that conditions were the worst since the devastating February 7 firestorm that killed 210 people and razed more than 2,000 homes.

With just a tent to shelter in and a few treasured possessions, many at the Lilydale evacuation centre, on Melbourne city's eastern fringe, waited tensely beside the radio for fire news.

Ursula Lorenz and her husband, Horst, left their home in Three Bridges township for the third time in a fortnight.

Surrounded by forest and farmland, the couple said their property would be in great danger if a nearby fire advanced.

"We're in a state of perpetual nervousness," Lorenz told AFP.

"If we just had a bit of rain, just a bit, it would be so good."

Warburton resident Yvette Koula said mass evacuations had left her home resembling a "ghost town."

"The atmosphere's been very tense and eerie for the past two weeks," said Koula. "People just want to get on with their lives now, they're sick of the fires."

Hundreds of schools were closed Friday as fire crews prepared for a return to the unpredictable combination of high winds, searing temperatures and low humidity.

Volunteer firefighter David Spooner, who lost his wife and son in the February 7 inferno, urged anyone in fire zones to get out early.

"After our experience, I'd consider leaving right now, particularly if you live in an area where there is only one road in and out of the place," said Spooner.

"In a normal bushfire year you do stand a chance but with the conditions now, with all the dry foliage and undergrowth and what not, I'd go, I'd just go. I wouldn't hang around," he told local commercial radio.