Fire consumes Tasmanian homes

Wednesday, January 22, 2003

CANBERRA, Australia -- The strong winds that fanned deadly bush fires in Australia's capital relented Tuesday, allowing firefighters to control flames crackling a few miles away. However, blazes in the southern island of Tasmania consumed five homes.

Thousands of Canberra residents were put on evacuation alert Tuesday and hovered near their homes. On Saturday, fires killed four people and destroyed 419 homes in one of Australia's worst-ever natural disasters.

Until the weather improved, there were fears Tuesday's fires could have been as bad.

The main fire front was still about three miles away, said New South Wales fire brigade spokesman John Winter.

"People will see fire activity getting closer but they will also see fire crews who will be managing that," Winter said.

Scorched leaves and embers rained down in some suburbs, starting a few small fires that were extinguished quickly.

Cooler weather was forecast for Wednesday in Canberra, further easing the crisis.

"The northern Canberra suburbs will be spared the impact of fire, and certainly with the advent of better conditions over the next three days those fires will be rounded up," said Phil Koperberg, chief of the New South Wales Rural Fire Service.

Meanwhile, hundreds of people in the southern state of Victoria were told to prepare to evacuate as days-old fires bore down on their homes.

No injuries were reported in Tasmania or Victoria.

The damages from Saturday's fire storm in Canberra were expected to total hundreds of millions of dollars. Schools, medical centers and thousands of acres of pine forests were destroyed.

The government ordered an inquiry into the response to those fires.

A ranking firefighter told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio that the leadership was disorganized in its response.

"There was no field command, there were no group captains there that knew the area, that were telling us where to go and what to do," Peter Holding, a senior deputy captain of firefighters, told ABC.

Canberra's city fire brigade union complained that members were locked out of planning meetings.

"The Canberra community are entitled to be outraged by the handling of Saturday's fire storm," union representative Mike Corcoran said.

Angry residents who lost homes Saturday claimed they received conflicting advice, got no assistance from firefighters and had to battle towering walls of flames with buckets and garden hoses.

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