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Raging Australian Wildfires Advance on Canberra - 2003-01-21

Wildfires are once again advancing on the Australian capital, Canberra. Thirty suburban districts have been put on a heightened state of alert.

Firefighters have warned the flames are within eight kilometers of the urban fringes but have said there is no immediate threat to the city. On Saturday, some of the worst bushfires ever seen in Australia claimed four lives and destroyed hundreds of homes. Thousands of residents have been told to prepare to abandon their homes should two major fires burning to Canberra's north break through containment lines. So far, conditions have helped the emergency operation but there are warnings that strong winds could drive the flames towards the city's outer suburbs later.

Once again the nation's capital is at the mercy of nature.

Bulldozers have carved out a series of fire breaks around residential areas. Thousands of people have been preparing for a possible onslaught, including dampening down roofs, felling trees and clearing gutters and gardens of leaves and other debris.

The city of 300,000 remains shrouded in choking smoke, obscuring some of the Australia's famous landmarks, including Parliament House.

Authorities have stressed that no amount of preparation would be able to contain the fires if winds gusted as hard as they did during the height of the crisis on Saturday.

Four people were killed in Australia's capital during the emergency. Almost 420 homes were burnt to the ground, destroying hundreds of millions of dollars in property.

Anger over who was to blame for the destruction is mounting. The federal government has ordered an inquiry into what was one of Australia's worst natural disasters.

Government Minister Wilson Tuckey believes the authorities in Canberra could and should have done more to prevent the disaster. "Wildfires don't just happen. Wildfires have to have excessive fuel loads to create the intensify that just threw fireballs through this particular region," Mr. Tuckey said.

Canberra's city fire brigade union has also criticized management of the crisis - claiming there was a complete lack of planning.

City officials have defended the emergency response, insisting the fires were so ferocious that no amount of precautionary activity would have made a difference.

Australia's bushfire emergency now stretches across the country. On the island state of Tasmania, hundreds of homes have been threatened in the town of Bridgewater. There are also uncontrolled outbreaks in Western Australia, Victoria and New South Wales.

The annual bushfire season has been exacerbated by a widespread drought, the worst Australia has endured for a century.