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Wildfires Rage Across Australia Amid Searing Heat

January 8, 2013

By Rod McGuirk, The Associated Press

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COOMA, Australia - Firefighters battled scores of wildfires raging across southeast Australia on Tuesday as authorities evacuated national parks and warned that blistering temperatures and high winds had led to "catastrophic" conditions in some areas.

No deaths had been reported, although officials in Tasmania were still trying to find around 100 residents who have been missing since a fire tore through the small town of Dunalley, east of the state capital of Hobart, last week, destroying around 90 homes. On Tuesday, police said no bodies were found during preliminary checks of the ruined houses.

"We are shaping up for one of the worst fire danger days on record," New South Wales Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said. "You don't get conditions worse than this. We are at the catastrophic level and clearly in those areas leaving early is your safest option."

Catastrophic threat level is the most severe rating applicable.

Wildfires have razed 20,000 hectares (50,000 acres) of forests and farmland across southern Tasmania since Friday. In New South Wales, the country's most populous state, the fires had burned through more than 26,000 hectares (64,000 acres) of land.

More than 130 fires were blazing across New South Wales, though only a few dozen houses were under threat by early evening. One fire was threatening about 30 homes near the small town of Cooma, south of the capital of Canberra. Cooma-Monaro shire mayor Dean Lynch told Australia's Sky News some residents had evacuated to the nearby town of Nimmitabel.

Strong winds were hampering efforts to bring the fires under control. Wind gusts more than 100 kilometers an hour (62 miles per hour) were recorded in some parts of the state.

All state forests and national parks were closed as a precaution and total fire bans were in place with temperatures surpassing 45 degrees Celsius (113 Fahrenheit) in some areas.

One volunteer firefighter suffered severe burns to his hands and face while fighting a grass fire near Gundaroo village, about 220 kilometers (138 miles) southwest of Sydney, on Monday. He was flown to a hospital in Sydney for treatment.

Fitzsimmons , the fire commissioner, said the firefighter's condition had improved on Tuesday, and he should be released from the hospital in the next few days.

Wildfires are common during the Australian summer. In February 2009, hundreds of fires across Victoria state killed 173 people and destroyed more than 2,000 homes.

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Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Story Image: Plumes of smoke rise from a fire near Cooma, Australia, Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2013. (New South Wales Rural Fire Service, AP)

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