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Capital Emergency Australia*

State of emergency in Australian capital

Saturday, January 18, 2003 Posted: 5:58 AM EST (1058 GMT)

CANBERRA, Australia -- Australia's capital is under a state of emergency as firefighters struggle with ferocious bushfires that have already killed one person, burned dozens of homes and forced thousands of evacuations.

In what has been described as "firestorm" conditions, Saturday's blazes burned into Canberra's suburbs, fueled by high winds and blistering temperatures.

Australian officials estimate as many as 100 homes have been destroyed. One police spokesperson told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. that one person had died, but gave no details.

Local radio stations warned that more than 30 suburbs could be in the path of flames and conditions were so bad fire crews had not reached many of the worst-hit areas. They reported that a fire station, school and medical centre had been destroyed.

Television reports said authorities were not able to send out helicopters and despite still being daylight, parts of the city were in the dark as smoke blocked out the sun.

Taken by surprise

While Canberra is often coined the "bush capital," residents were taken by surprise at the fire's spread into the city and dashed home to hose their roof and put out fires sparked by embers.

"I know (my house has) gone. My mate's has gone. All my medals are lost. I've lost my wife and daughter and I can't find them anywhere," Duffy resident Alan Latta told AAP.

At least five fire fronts were burning in the city late Saturday, with officials saying that every area of the capital was at risk, as Australia struggles with one of its worst droughts in a century.

"No area of Canberra is immune from this emergency, everyone should be filling their bath tubs with water in case of spot fires," New South Wales Rural Fire brigade spokesman Cameron Wade told ABC radio.

A fire burning in a park south of the city had moved into the capital's western suburbs, destroying dozens of homes and forcing the evacuation of thousands of the city's 300,000 residents, according to Reuters reports.

While hundreds of foreign diplomats live in Canberra, parliament is not in session and the prime minister and most federal politicians are out of the city for the summer.

Out of control

Director of emergency services, Mike Castle, told ABC radio the outlook for the evening was not good, when the wind is likely to blow the fire into the southern suburbs.

At least a thousand firefighters were tackling the outbreaks.

Radio broadcasts are being interrupted by regular power outages, and traffic lights throughout the city are flickering as electricity, gas and water services are hit by the fires.

To the southwest of Canberra, the worst bushfires in 50 years were sweeping out of control through the Snowy Mountains.

The country's main mountain resort of Thredbo had been evacuated, authorities told Reuters, with more than a thousand people told to leave as blazes closed in on the resort of Thredbo nestled under Mount Kosciuszko, Australia's highest peak at 2,228 metres (7,310 ft).

At least a thousand firefighters tackling outbreaks across 80,000 hectares (197,700 acres) of the mountains were being pulled back because conditions were too dangerous.

In the weeks before Christmas, at least one man died defending his home as fierce fires raged around Sydney, forcing hundreds to evacuate and engulfing at least 20 houses.

Fires are natural to Australia's dry bush, roaring through parched undergrowth and into oil-filled eucalyptus trees, sparking infernos. As the country's cities grow, homes are encroaching onto natural bushlands.

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