Australian authorities today declared the worst of the deadly wildfire season over, telling thousands of people who fled their homes it was safe to return. Fire-fighting authorities began scaling back their operations after cooling rains fell almost a month after a savage firestorm swept through Australia's south-east, killing 210 people. "We see a very bright light at the end of the tunnel now," said Victoria state's emergency services commissioner Bruce Esplin.
"There's an opportunity for the communities of Victoria to start their process of grieving, start their process of rebuilding, without the ever-present threat of fire," he said. The search for bodies would continue for another three weeks, but the rain had greatly reduced the fire threat and Mr Esplin said it was time for firefighters from overseas and other states to return home. An estimated 10,000 people were displaced by the fires, which razed more than 2,000 homes.
The death toll has remained at 210 for a week, but is expected to climb once forensic tests and searches are finalised. Authorities had been on high alert around four remaining major fires on Tuesday, with heat and wind conditions predicted to intensify. "Mother Nature threw just about everything at Victoria yesterday. We had wind, we had dust storms, we had rain, we had fires," said the environment department's Steve Warrington.
"It will take some weeks to mop it all up, but as long as there are no new (fire) starts it should be okay." The wildfires followed a 13-year drought in southeastern Australia, which has seen less than four millimetres (one sixth of an inch) of rain in the state capital Melbourne during the first two months of this year. * AFP