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US Firefighters to Help Ease Australian Bushfire Crisis

The United States has responded to Australia's request for international help to cope with its bushfire emergency. About 100 American firefighters have arrived in Melbourne. About one million hectares of forest and farmland have been destroyed in conditions described by state leaders in Victoria as some of the worst ever. Phil Mercer in Sydney reports.

Bushfires in the southern Australian state of Victoria have been burning for more than 50 days.

Thousands of hectares of forest and farmland have been reduced to ash by unstoppable walls of flame and several homes have been destroyed.

Wet weather has come to the aid of exhausted and over-stretched fire crews but the danger is far from over.

Many fires in remote areas still burn out of control and Australia has asked for international help. About one hundred American firefighters have arrived to do their bit.

Their task is to help contain outbreaks in one of the world's most fire-prone regions.

Stuart Ord from Victoria's Department of Sustainability and Environment says the U.S. fire crews can make a big difference.

"The Americans are used to very hot fires," he says. "They're used to working in very remote and steep, difficult country and that's much the same as we've got in Gippsland and the Alpine regions of Victoria at the moment where these fires are so they're very, very experienced fire-fighters. They're used to very hot situations."

The U.S. crews will stay initially for one month.

About 50 New Zealand firefighters have also been drafted to help, along with a similar number from Canada.

A long drought, hot temperatures and strong winds have made this a very uncomfortable summer for many Australians.

Sydney, the country's biggest city, is also facing the bushfire menace.

Outbreaks in a national park near the city's northern fringes have caused alarm, and a major highway was closed as the flames advanced.

Water-bombing helicopters have been called in, while on the ground hundreds of volunteer firefighters toiled away in extreme conditions.

The authorities in Sydney have said they are gradually winning this battle but nature is a powerful enemy.

Many communities are facing a very nervous wait to see which way these unpredictable wild fires might head next.

A sudden change in the direction of the wind can bring relief or disaster.

Many fires are caused by lightning strikes but a large number are started deliberately by arsonists.