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Australia Counts Cost of Christmas Bushfires, Flames Rage On

Image: A bushfire burns at Wye River near Lorne, south of Melbourne, December 25, 2015. REUTERS/Keith Pakenham/AAP



MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Firefighters struggled on Saturday to contain out of control bushfires that have destroyed dozens of homes in one of Australia’s leading tourist areas, and emergency services warned of dangerous conditions and more fires to come in the New Year.

Emergency officials in Victoria state said rain overnight helped slow the path of fires that destroyed at least 53 homes on Friday along the picturesque Great Ocean Road, and forced residents to abandon Christmas celebrations to flee for their lives.

Although an evacuation alert for the popular tourist town of Lorne was lifted, officials said the fires were far from out and the weather was hampering the relief operation by preventing water-dropping aircraft from taking off.

Authorities warned that the fire risk both in the area and throughout the state would remain high into January, at the peak of the southern summer.

“This fire doesn’t go away. This fire is a fire that will remain with potential to burn in January and February this year,” Craig Lapsley, the state’s emergency services commissioner, told a news conference.

“We will be back into hot, windy weather in January without a doubt. Everything’s available to burn.”
Traffic was still disrupted in the area on Saturday and parts of the Great Ocean Road remained closed. Emergency officials said teams would go in to assess damage.

The area is one of Australia’s leading tourist areas, famed for its picturesque scenery and the bizarre rock formations visible just offshore in the blustery Southern Ocean.

Walking trails in the nearby Great Otway National Park were closed to the public, as some of the fires are in the park.

The fires started with a lightning strike on Dec. 19 and have already burned more than 2,000 hectares (20 square kms/4,940 acres). On Friday, fanned by winds, the flames suddenly gained pace, destroying 35 homes in the community of Wye River and another 18 in nearby Separation Creek, both located around 120 kms (75 miles) southwest of Melbourne.

Despite the intensity of the fires, as of Saturday no casualties had been reported.

Some of the buildings destroyed were holiday homes and many residents spent Christmas night in hastily organized evacuation centers. Victoria state Premier Daniel Andrews said grants would be available to help those who had lost their homes.

The disaster is the latest of a string of bushfires to hit Victoria and Australia’s other states over recent weeks.

(Reporting by Chris McCall; Editing by Dan Grebler)

Copyright 2015 Thomson Reuters. Click for Restrictions.

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