- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 19, 2003

CANBERRA, Australia, Jan. 19 (UPI) — Australia's capital city was on guard Sunday against more of the sudden brush fires that killed four people, cut electrical power and destroyed hundreds of houses, ABC News of Australia reported.

The Saturday firestorm destroyed nearly 400 residences, overwhelming fire fighters in the city of 320,000 when high winds blew the deadly flames into dry brush and trees in the suburbs.

A number of people were still being treated for injuries Sunday, some of them transferred to hospitals in Sydney, a little more than 200 miles to the north. Canberra hospitals alone treated 260 people.

There were warnings of continuing extreme fire danger over the next two days. At one point 2,000 people in the path of the flames were forced to flee their homes.

There was some criticism the city's fire fighters were not fast enough to arrive in some areas of the city. Chief Minister Jon Stanhope strongly defended them, saying they were simply overwhelmed by a once-in-a-century event.

"It was a holocaust of an extent that we simply did not and could not possibly have had the capacity to foresee or deal with," he told ABC News of Australia.

Normally the city has enough fire fighters to handle six house fires at once, hundreds fewer than were needed to battle Saturday's blazes.

The region was under a state of emergency Sunday, with ashes scattered over the city accompanied by smoke from still smoldering fires. One alleged looter was arrested.

Qantas Airlines offered free flights to Canberra residents who lost their homes and needed to travel elsewhere in the country.

Residents who remained in Canberra were told to to restrict the amount of water sent to the overloaded sewage system. One holding tank was being repaired before it dumps raw sewage into the Molonglo river.

Many roads around the city remained closed while firefighters, with reinforcements from elsewhere in the country, used bulldozers to clear safety buffers.

The flames claimed the country's oldest active astronomical observatory, several historic plantations and all of Canberra's public health laboratories.

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