Fires Raging in Australian Capital Claim 3 Lives

From Times Wire Services

Raging fires killed three people, forced thousands to flee and destroyed 388 homes in this Australian capital Saturday. Firefighters continued to battle the blazes early today.

One man died of smoke inhalation while trying to save his house, and the body of an 83-year-old woman was found at her home. A 37-year-old woman also was found dead in her home in the suburb of Duffy, police said.

"This is undoubtedly the worst crisis that Canberra has faced in its history," said George Browning, its Anglican bishop.

At the height of the disaster on Saturday firefighters called on people not to panic, but acknowledged they had been overwhelmed by the ferocity and magnitude of the flames. The government described it as the sort of emergency that comes once in a century or two.

Many residents reported no fire crews in their burning streets. They battled flames with garden hoses and buckets filled from swimming pools.

"We just got a few precious things out and the family dog and within two minutes the house was just gone," resident Tony Walter said. "It just exploded."

More than 20% of the city was without power this morning and embers continued falling on houses. But winds were dying down, allowing hundreds of firefighters to tackle three major blazes raging around Canberra's edge.

A city of 320,000, Canberra has been hit by drought for months, but the speed with which the fire spread took residents by surprise. One official said some of the fires could have been set, although most were started a week ago by lightning in a nearby national park.

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