Australian residents return to razed homes

AP News
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Posted: Dec 31, 2009 12:10 AM

Residents returned Thursday to nearly 40 homes razed in Australia's most destructive wildfires in almost year, which left four people injured.

Wildfires possibly sparked by fallen power lines scorched a swath of western Australian farm and forest land Tuesday and Wednesday, and hundreds of fighters worked to contain them by Thursday, emergency authority spokesman Allen Gale said.

The fires destroyed 38 homes around the township of Toodyay, 50 miles (80 kilometers) north of the coastal city of Perth. A woman resident required hospital treatment for burns while three firefighters were treated for smoke inhalation and a heat-related illness, Gale said.

About 150 people who had been evacuated from the fire path Tuesday were given permission Thursday morning to pass the police blocks and return to the destruction zone, he said. It was their first opportunity to assess the damage to their property.

Gale said that destroyed houses may still be smoldering, and that even houses that had survived undamaged were without power.

"There will still be heat in some of those buildings," Gale said. "It's not the time to go sifting through the remains and the debris; it's time to see what the situation is and make an assessment," he added.

The federal government Thursday joined the Western Australia state government in offering financial assistance to communities affected by what has been declared a natural disaster. The declaration Wednesday made victims eligible for thousands of dollars in state government handouts.

Fires near Toodyay and further north near the town of Badgingarra scorched a combined total of more than 33,000 acres (13,400 hectares) of sheep and wheat farms and forests.

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Stock losses have yet to be assessed.

Gale said the fires had destroyed more property than any other in Australia since February when the nation experienced its worst wildfire disaster on record.

Hundreds of blazes raced across huge parts of southeastern Victoria state, killing 173 people and destroying more than 2,000 homes in a single day.

Gale said the fires were the most destructive in Western Australia state since 1961 when a series of blazes southwest of Perth destroyed 160 buildings and 860,000 acres (350,000 hectares).