The Heat Is Online

388 Homes Lost in Worst Firestorm in Canberra History

Australia bush fires claim two lives, 388 homes, Jan. 20, 2003

CANBERRA - Fires continued to burn in the west of the Australian capital on Sunday after firestorm conditions killed two people and destroyed an estimated 388 homes in the worst bush fire crisis the capital has seen.

"There are still fires burning throughout Canberra, but particularly (the suburbs of ) Duffy, Holder, Weston and Chapman," an Australian Federal Police spokeswoman told Reuters.

"We are asking people in Tuggeranong and Weston Creek to be on alert for spot fires," she added.

A Reuters photographer said streets of burned out houses and the shells of vehicles were still smouldering with abandoned and melted garden hoses strewn snakelike across blacked lawns.

Roofs had caved in and power lines were down. The streets were deserted of people but full of wildlife including birds, kangaroos and dogs, both alive and dead.

Police are telling residents to remain on high alert and fire service chiefs are warning that wind changes later on Sunday could renew the danger.

"Several houses that had burned down overnight have re-ignited due to wind changes," a police statement said.

Thick haze greeted dawn over the "bush capital", home to 300,000 people, and ash and eye-stinging smoke from dozens of fires stretched to the parliament building in the city centre.

Police said the fires had claimed a second life overnight in the worst fires the capital has ever seen. "At this point I'm not aware whether they've notified relatives... I believe (the death) occurred in a house," a police official told Reuters.

One man was killed on Saturday by smoke inhalation as he fought to save his home in the western suburb of Duffy, where dozens of homes were destroyed.

Temperatures were expected to soar to 34 degrees Celsius (93 Fahrenheit) after a cool night, and forecasters feared winds would fan fires still burning in the northwest suburb of Holt.

One of the worst droughts in a century has turned Australia's fire-prone bushland into a tinder box.

In the weeks before Christmas, at least one man died defending his home as fierce fires raged around Sydney, forcing hundreds to evacuate and engulfing at least 20 houses.

On Saturday, the worst fires in 50 years swept through the Snowy Mountains southwest of Canberra, forcing the evacuation of the country's main mountain resort of Thredbo.

Fires were also burning in Victoria state in southeast Australia and in the northern suburbs of Sydney, where hundreds of homes have been threatened for days.

A state of emergency has been declared in Canberra, home to hundreds of foreign diplomats.

While parliament is not in session and most politicians are out of the city, Prime Minister John Howard was scheduled to fly into the capital on Sunday to survey the damage.

More than 2,000 people have been evacuated to schools and community centres across Canberra and dozens treated for burns and smoke inhalation at Canberra Hospital.

Two burn victims were evacuated by air to Sydney, about 300 km (185 miles) north. Local radio reported the two had been trying to save horses at an equestrian centre from the flames.

The sprawling capital has been hit by drought for months, but the speed of the fire's spread took residents by surprise.

In many areas, residents faced the flames alone, as firefighters struggled to keep up with the fire fronts.


Australian bushfire damage hits A$100 million, Jan. 22, 2003

SYDNEY - Australian insurers said yesterday the estimated cost of deadly bushfires that swept through the nation's capital at the weekend had hit A$100 million ($59 million) and warned the costs could escalate.

Insurers have been hit with more than 1,000 claims for damage to private homes and property from the blaze that killed four people and destroyed about 400 homes in Canberra.

The estimated cost exceeds claims from fires that ringed Sydney in December 2001, causing A$70 million in damages. Canberra is home to 300,000 people, including hundreds of foreign diplomats.

"We are upgrading the losses to A$100 million, about 1,000 claims, and we expect the (Mount Stromlo) observatory to be among those," Insurance Council of Australia (ICA) spokeswoman Sandy Watson told Reuters. "It could go beyond that."

The council said most claims so far were for damage to private homes and motor vehicles, but insurers are expecting hefty claims for commercial property, including the historic government-owned space observatory, destroyed in the fires.

Life and health insurance claims are also expected. Four people were killed, three suffered serious burns and 60 people remained in Canberra Hospital early yesterday.

The fires will put further pressure on the country's insurance industry, which is still smarting from the March 2001 collapse of the nation's second-largest general insurer HIH Insurance Group Ltd, a severe drought, and claims from the Sydney bushfires over the past two years.

Insurance Australia Group Ltd, a major insurer through its NRMA brand, said its exposure to the fires would not exceed A$42 million.

"While the group's claims from the event were expected to be higher, its reinsurance contracts would limit its exposure," IAG said in a statement.

IAG shares closed 1.1 percent weaker at A$2.75, after earlier hitting a low of A$2.70.

Suncorp-Metway Ltd, one of the capital's largest insurers through its GIO brand, said its exposure to the fires was A$14 million so far and this was expected to rise.

"GIO has a team of assessors on notice to provide additional support to customers in fire-affected areas as soon as we can get in," GIO's general manager for personal insurance, Andrew Byrne, said.

Suncorp shares fell 0.7 percent to A$11.41 in a flat overall afternoon market.

The blaze started on Saturday afternoon when bushfires burning out of control in forests south of the capital raced into Canberra, overwhelming firefighters in the park-like city.

Pine plantations, a high school and health centre were also destroyed by the fires.