Australia heat wave subsides, fires under control

Sat Jan 31, 2009 11:51pm EST

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SYDNEY Feb 1 (Reuters) - Temperatures in the Australian cities of Melbourne and Adelaide fell on Sunday after days of searing heat in the densely populated southwest region that has been blamed for a spate of sudden deaths.

A major bushfire burning to the east of Melbourne had been brought largely under control after consuming more than 6,000 hectares, as had another in southern New South Wales state, fire fighters said.

"Our workload has dropped off significantly from midnight, when the cool breezes came through," an ambulance spokeswoman in South Australia state said.

Dubbed a 'once in a century' event by the local media, the heatwave has been blamed for a series of deaths in Adelaide and Melbourne and has disrupted power supplies, leaving hundreds of thousands of homes in darkness.

As of Saturday at least 28 'sudden deaths' over two days had been reported in South Australia state. Authorities in Victoria state have also blamed several deaths there on the heat.

Sudden deaths are those where the person was already dead when ambulance officers arrived, and authorities said the total number of deaths due to the heat could well be higher.

Health officials have called for residents to keep an eye on elderly friends and relatives and ensure they drank plenty of water. Fire bans remain in place for much of the country.

After days of temperatures well above 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit), Bureau of Meteorology data showed temperatures in Melbourne and Adelaide cities had slipped into the 30s, helped by cooling breezes.

Fruit growers in South Australia and Victoria are battling to save crops in the heatwave. But so far the extreme hot weather has remained in southern Australia and not moved north towards the country's main wheat and sugar crops.

Many of the fires that raged this week have been blamed on arsonists, despite the widespread ordering of 'fire bans' which make it illegal to start a fire in the open.

The Australian Institute of Criminology said in a report approximately half of all bushfires in the country were deliberately lit and that arson costs the country around A$1.6 billion ($1.0 billion) a year.

"Available evidence suggests that the risk of deliberate fires is higher during certain times of the year and week and that there are 'hot spots', most notably on the edge of urban areas," it said.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has warned that the country was currently a 'tinder box' and urged Australians to heed the lessons of previous years and avoid starting fires.

(Editing by Sanjeev Miglani; Sydney newsroom +61 2 93731800)

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