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Australian Authorities Investigate Canberra Wildfires - 2003-01-20

Australia authorities are launching an investigation into why the capital, Canberra, has been overwhelmed by raging wildfires -that have left four people dead and caused major devastation. Meanwhile, emergency crews battling the blazes say the situation is being contained for the moment.

One of Australia's worst ever bushfire disasters has left a trail of death and devastation since Saturday. More than 400 buildings were destroyed, thousands of people fled their homes and city services were damaged in what could cost the city hundreds of millions of dollars.

An investigation is being launched into the deaths and why the city's emergency services were not better prepared to deal with the fast moving fires. The blazes burnt out of control close to the city for a week before they blew into Canberra with unprecedented ferocity two days ago. Residents say they were not warned that the fires were approaching, firefighters failed to arrive and those that did lacked adequate resources.

The authorities have admitted fire crews were overwhelmed, but the New South Wales Fire Service Commissioner Phil Koperberg defended the emergency operation. "We're seeing fire behavior, which Australian firefighters and scientists have not seen before. So it is only reasonable that the emergency services in their reaction to this can't be expected to do the impossible and sometimes I suspect that's what they're being asked to do and they can't," he said.

Officials say this firestorm phenomenon was exacerbated by unusual weather conditions, combined with Australia's worst drought in a century.

Milder conditions Monday have helped crews contain the outbreaks in Canberra although the city is bracing itself for more high temperatures and gusty winds in the coming days. The bushfire emergency elsewhere in southeastern Australia continues. In Victoria and New South Wales dozens of fires still burn out of control.

The Australian Prime Minister John Howard has toured Canberra to see the devastation for himself. Mr. Howard said he'd never seen anything like it. His government has promised immediate financial support to help the victims rebuilt their lives.