Cooler weather a relief for Australian firemen

Agence France-Presse

Posted at Feb 28 2009 05:27 PM | Updated as of Mar 01 2009 01:27 AM

SYDNEY - Australian fire crews took advantage of cooler conditions Saturday to prepare for dangerous weather forecast for early next week.

Four major blazes continued to rage in the scorched southeastern state of Victoria, where 210 people lost their lives in a devastating firestorm three weeks ago.

More than 100 extra firefighters have been flown to Victoria amid fears that forecast higher temperatures and winds could boost the fire threat.

But authorities said cooler weather late Friday had given the crews much-needed reprieve.

"It provided us a good opportunity to keep building and strengthening containment lines in those existing fires," an environment department spokesman said.

"With the cool temperatures we have seen fire activity slow down, which allows us to get in and do a lot of work and containment before Tuesday... (which) is predicted to be very warm, with strong to gale-force winds."

Police said a small fire that broke out Friday at Arthurs Seat, east of the state capital Melbourne, appeared to have been deliberately lit, with a number of others sparked by lightning strikes.

As emergency agencies worked with chainsaws, bulldozers and spades to carve out buffer zones around the fires, the Country Fire Authority's Allan Rankin said communities would also have a time to "take that collective sigh of relief and regroup."

"There will be more warm weather ahead and we're still a long way from the end of this fire season," he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

A fresh group of 110 soldiers moved into the devastated area of Kinglake, where 45 people are believed to have perished, to assist with search and victim identification efforts.

"The arrival of these soldiers will bring relief to some of the defence members that have been working constantly for the past 19 days," said Brigadier Michael Arnold.

The death toll has remained at 210 since Wednesday, but is expected to climb further once formal identification procedures are completed.

Authorities warn wildfires will remain a threat until April unless rain falls in Australia's parched southeast.