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Homes lost as high winds fan Australian bushfire

24 november 2011, 17:44
Australian fire brigade rescue verhicle. ©AFP
Australian fire brigade rescue verhicle. ©AFP
Hot, dry conditions and high winds Thursday hampered fire crews as they battled to control a raging bushfire that swept through a Western Australia town, destroying more than 20 buildings, AFP reports.

The blaze erupted when a controlled burn-off in a national park near the Margaret River wine belt got out of hand, swept across 1,800 hectares (4,450 acres) and forced hundreds of people to evacuate.

Eleven houses and nine chalets were razed or damaged, along with five sheds, according to Western Australia's Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC).

Firefighters worked through the night and appeared to be containing the fierce blaze in the coastal town of Prevelly, about 280 kilometres (170 miles) south of Perth.

But strong winds again began fanning the flames, with some 200 residents who spent the night on the beach or in an emergency evacuation shelter no closer to returning home.

DEC incident controller Roger Armstrong warned residents that conditions were still dangerous, with gusts causing some "fairly serious setbacks" for fire crews.

"It is not controlled and with hot north-westerly winds there is still a significant risk of escape," Armstrong told a community meeting, according to ABC Radio.

"I won't say I am confident of a win here today. It is still in the lap of the gods."

Residents in a number of areas were warned that it was too late to evacuate and they should "take shelter in your home and actively defend it".

DEC said the burn-off started on September 6 and the disaster happened after winds picked up an ember and carried it over the controlled burn boundary.

"I want to reinforce with you that we did not ignite a prescribed burn on a serious fire danger day," Armstrong said.

State Premier Colin Barnett defended the practice of controlled burning, but acknowledged many in the community were angry.

"It is a preventative measure -- this time it's gone wrong," he said.

"I know there is a great deal of public interest and probably a lot of anger about how this fire started -- and we will get to the bottom of that -- but right now we have to deal with an urgent and dangerous situation.

"There will be a full investigation into this as there should be and as there will be."

No deaths or injuries have been reported but the local community were venting their anger.

"I'm really angry with those who lit the fires -- I hope they look after us because it's their fault, we've lost everything," local resident Marjorie Stewart told reporters.

She and her husband Gareth left the house they built in 2002 as the fire approached, and later saw aerial footage at the evacuation centre which showed it had been destroyed.

"All my bits and pieces that make me are gone," she said.

Surfpoint backpackers' hostel manager Will Carter, one of those who spent the night on the beach, said it was "unbelievable" the DEC's actions had caused the blaze.

The fire came as temperatures around the state rose and the Fire and Emergency Services Authority warned Western Australia was facing one of its most dangerous bushfire seasons in recent history.

In February, wildfires damaged or destroyed 59 homes and scorched hundreds of hectares in Perth, Australia's fourth largest city, in two major blazes triggered by heat and high winds.

Bushfires are a regular summer feature in Australia where in February 2009 the deadly "Black Saturday" firestorm claimed 173 lives in southeastern Victoria state -- the nation's worst natural disaster of modern times.

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