February 27, 2009 / 1:35 AM / 11 years ago

Firefighters contain new Australian bushfires

MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Firefighters contained eight new bushfires in Australia’s Victoria state on Friday, a day of extreme fire danger three weeks after 210 people were killed in in the southern state in the nation’s worst blazes.

About 200 schools were closed and people in towns near the fires were put on high alert, authorities fearing high temperatures and strong winds could lead to a repeat of the February 7 firestorms.

But with more than 3,000 firefighters deployed or on standby, authorities managed to contain the eight new outbreaks, although dozens of fires continued to burn across the state.

Some residents evacuated their homes early on Friday as heavy smoke billowed over the town of Healesville, 65 km (40 miles) northeast of the Victorian capital Melbourne. Healesville was at the center of the February 7 firestorms.

“It was a smoky start to the morning — we had to shut up the house to keep the smell of smoke out,” said Healesville resident Mark Laurence, 46, who evacuated his family of four from the town earlier this month under the threat of wildfires.

He said a number of residents had again left the town over the past 12 hours.

Victoria’s Department of Sustainability and Environment spokesman Mike Goode said extra fire crews, including reinforcements from other states and New Zealand, helped avoid any disasters on Friday.

“It’s not only a case of having fresh bodies around to help those that have been working for a long time, but also just the presence of firefighters around reassures the community,” Goode told Australian Broadcasting Corp radio.

Emergency services officials said people in areas near the fires needed to decide early whether to evacuate their homes or stay and defend their properties, adding it was too late to leave once the flames were in sight.

Many of those killed in Victoria on February 7 died in their cars as they attempted to outrun the fires.

Goode’s department said authorities have battled about 3,500 fires in Victoria since the February 7 fires, which were Australia’s worst natural disaster in more than a century.

Reporting by Mick Tsikas; Writing by James Grubel; Editing by Paul Tait

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