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Australian Fire Fighters Faulted in Deadly January Wildfires - 2003-08-04

Firefighters in Australia are being blamed for not doing enough to stop the blazes that burned down more than 500 homes and killed four people in the capital, Canberra, in January. The official inquiry found fire crews were too slow to respond to the emergency and local authorities were too late in telling people about the danger.

The inferno that swept through suburban Canberra was one of Australia's worst natural disasters. At the time, officials said the fires were "unstoppable," but an independent report published Monday disagrees.

It accuses firefighters of missing opportunities to stop the fires days before they threatened the city. The report, commissioned by the local government, criticizes the efficiency and capability of fire crews and specifies 61 areas that need improvement.

The inadequacy of the firefighting effort was highlighted by one simple fact: No house had been lost to bushfire in suburban Canberra since 1952. In January, more than 500 homes were destroyed and four people died.

The Chief Minister of the Canberra regional government, Jon Stanhope, says previous administrations must take some of the blame. "I accept on behalf of my government, just as I would expect governments that preceded my government to accept their responsibility in relation to this," said Mr. Stanhope, adding, "I don't intend to ask anybody to stand down or to resign."

The image of desperate residents fighting the inferno with garden hoses is one many Australians will never forget.

The fires were sparked by lightning and fanned by strong winds, hot summer conditions and a long drought. The fires raged around Canberra for a week before traveling into the city's suburbs.

The report says the tragedy cannot be explained as a one-time event and insists that unless the right steps are taken, Australia's "Bush Capital" will be at risk again when the bushfire season starts in two months.