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Australian Forest Fires Engulf Homes in Capital

January 18, 2003|From Times Wire Reports

CANBERRA, Australia — Fifty to 100 homes were burning in the Australian capital today as forest fires pushed into Canberra's suburbs, pouring ash and smoke over Parliament and the embassy district and forcing thousands of people to evacuate.

Australian Federal Police Sgt. Jeff Brown said police were trying to confirm reports that at least one person had been killed.

"The houses are too far alight for us to get near, but there are people missing," he said.

Residents of 27 suburbs were asked to help battle spot fires started by flying embers.

Peter Lucas-Smith, who was managing fire crews around Canberra, said there was little his forces could do to battle the out-of-control blazes in treacherous conditions.

Alan Lattak, who lives in the Canberra suburb of Duffy, said that his wife and daughter are missing and that his home was lost in the fire.

"I know mine's gone. My mate's has gone.... I've lost my wife and daughter and I can't find them anywhere," he said.

At least three fire fronts were burning in the city and officials said every area of the capital was at risk.

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

Fanned by 100-degree heat and high winds, a fire burning in a national park south of the city moved into the western suburbs.

The city government declared a state of emergency as thick smoke blocked out the sun and residents rushed home to hose down roofs and fight dozens of fires sparked by from falling ash and embers. Power was out over much of the city.

Although hundreds of foreign diplomats live in Canberra, Parliament is not in session and the prime minister and most federal politicians are out of the capital for the summer.

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