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Fires rage, floodwaters rise in Australian extremes

Intense wildfires raged out of control as southeastern Australia sweltered through a record heatwave, while floodwaters in the country's sodden north continued to rise.

world Updated: Feb 08, 2009 02:32 IST

Intense wildfires raged out of control on Saturday as southeastern Australia sweltered through a record heatwave, while floodwaters in the country's sodden north continued to rise.

High winds amid tinderbox conditions fanned more than 50 fires across three states as the once-in-a-century heatwave topped 46 degrees Celsius (115 Fahrenheit).

Flames in the Victorian town of Horsham, with homes in seven other townships, destroyed three homes, a fire truck and a golf club and major power lines under threat from a large blaze in the Bunyip State Park.

One volunteer crewman suffered burns to 50 per cent of his body after catching alight as he battled flames of up to 10 metres (33 feet) in height, authorities said.

"People need to understand that this fire is a particularly serious one," said the environment department's Stuart Ord, referring to the Bunyip blaze.

"If they're going to leave they need to get out now, well ahead of the fire. The fire's moving pretty quickly, and it's gaining in size very, very quickly," he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

"Our crews... are running around trying to save houses, it's very dangerous work," added John Haynes, of the Country Fire Authority.

"As we predicted, and the weather bureau, it is an ugly day."

Melbourne, Australia's second-largest city, recorded its hottest-ever February day, peaking at 46.4 degrees by mid-afternoon, with temperatures soaring above 47 degrees further inland.

Scorching heat and wind gusts fed more than 45 fires in New South Wales state, including blazes that threatened several homes in the northern town of Inverell, and in the coastal region of Peats Ridge.

Authorities said a number of the fires appeared to have been lit deliberately.

Blazes in the state of South Australia were under control on Saturday.

Fire bans were in place across much of Australia's southeast, with conditions said to be the worst since the Ash Wednesday wildfires of 1983, which killed 75 people and razed 2,500 homes.

The region has roasted in extreme temperatures for a fortnight, with 29 homes lost to fire, hundreds of heat-related hospital admissions and dozens of deaths -- mostly the elderly.

Meanwhile, the country's saturated north was inundated overnight, with 350 millimetres (14 inches) of rain causing flash floods in the town of Innisfail and swelling engorged rivers.

"This morning we realised that the waters were beginning to come back again," said Pino Giandomenico, mayor of the worst-hit town of Ingham.

Many people had started cleaning up, believing the waters were receding. Giandomenico said "it's a bit disheartening and people do get upset."

Treasurer Wayne Swan on Saturday announced emergency relief funding for flood victims, while a commercial jet laden with food and other supplies left Sydney for the waterlogged region.

Much of Queensland state has been declared a disaster zone, with an area of more than one million square kilometres (386,100 square miles) and 3,000 homes affected by floods due to torrential rains.

Hundreds of people were forced to evacuate, or have been stranded in their homes for up to six days.

The sugar cane and cattle industries have been devastated by the floods, with tens of thousands of stranded cows starving to death.

A tropical low off the northeastern coast was fuelling the rains, which were being compounded by abnormally high "king tides" in the region, the weather bureau said.

First Published: Feb 08, 2009 02:31 IST