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Australians Flee Bushfires, Lose Homes to Flames on Christmas Day

  • Reuters

FILE - A sailing boat passes the Sydney Opera House as smoke from bushfires blankets the city.

FILE - A sailing boat passes the Sydney Opera House as smoke from bushfires blankets the city.

Fire crews battled into the night on Friday after raging bushfires reduced homes to ashes in a famous Australian beauty spot on Christmas Day, sending residents fleeing for their lives to the sound of blaring sirens.

Water bombing aircraft made a minimal impact on the fires, which set entire trees and hillsides alight in communities along the Great Ocean Road, officials said.

Evacuation sirens sounded in towns along the road, a major tourist attraction southwest of Melbourne, as the normally packed route was closed and residents moved to hastily organized evacuation centers nearby.

Although the official number of homes confirmed burned stood at two in the evening, a spokesman for Victoria state's emergency services said that was expected to increase substantially.

There were no immediate reports of deaths in the fires.

“A significant number of houses are believed to be lost,” the spokesman told Reuters. “We are expecting that we will have a significantly increased figure from that.”

More than 150 firefighters with eight aircraft and 60 fire trucks spent the holiday fighting the fires. The Great Ocean Road is known for its scenic landscapes and for the bizarre rock formations visible offshore in the Southern Ocean.

Victoria's emergency services said 1,500 hectares had so far been burned in the latest bushfire to hit the state this year. Another fire on the outskirts of Melbourne earlier in the day was brought under control. Although a change in the weather was predicted, emergency services said the threat was likely to remain for some time.

In 2009, Victoria witnessed Australia's worst ever bushfire disaster, which has since been dubbed 'Black Saturday'.