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Australian Capital Remains in Wildfire Crisis


The Australian capital, Canberra, remains in crisis, with devastating bush fires destroying at least 400 homes and injuring 150 people. At least four people have been killed.

It is the worst bushfire in Canberra's history. Two-thousand people fled for their lives since Saturday as fires engulfed the outer suburbs with frightening speed.

At least four people including a 61 year old man and an 83 year old woman were killed. Three people were airlifted to Sydney with critical burns. Dozens more have been treated for burns or smoke inhalation. The entire capital remains blanketed in thick, black smoke and burning embers. Hundreds of burned out vehicles, many with melted windshields and engine blocks, litter the streets in a grim testimony to the intensity of the firestorm.

Among the hundreds of buildings lost are houses, businesses, shops, a school, the headquarters of the national health department, and the Mount Stromlo Observatory. Officials say fire crews do not have the capacity to deal with the magnitude of the blazes.

Australia's Prime Minister John Howard cut short his vacation to go to Canberra. "I have been to a lot of bushfire scenes in the time that I have been prime minister, and previously, this was by far the worst, by far the worst," he said.

One in five Canberra houses remains without power and several are without water. One of the biggest problems facing the city is the sewage system, because of major fire damage to a key water control facility.

The latest fires began after scorching temperatures and gusty winds spread spot fires from bigger blazes raging in the tinder dry mountains to Canberra's southwest. Australia is in one of Australia's worst droughts in a century.

The prime minister said he is only thankful more people did not die. "It is a miracle that given the ferocity and the suddenness and the intensity of it, it is a miracle that more people didn't lose their lives, and it's a huge tribute to the emergency services," he said.

The prime minister has promised financial assistance for the many people who have lost their homes, as well as extra funds to repair Canberra's infrastructure.

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