Updated: 01/18/2014 14:01 | By Agence France-Presse

Australia fire chief says 'worst behind us'

The worst of the bushfires in Australia's state of Victoria appeared to be over Saturday, officials said, as firefighters battling the blazes welcomed cooler conditions after days of extreme heat.


Australia fire chief says 'worst behind us'

A plane drops fire retardant material over the bushfires in the Grampians in the Australian state of Victoria, in this Victoria Country Fire Authority photo from January 17, 2014

Four homes were lost in a fire in the Grampians region, in western Victoria, where a massive 52,000-hectare blaze had threatened townships and prompted the evacuation of holiday spots.

Fire Services Commissioner Craig Lapsley said the fires across the state, most of which were sparked by lightning, had burned through 100,000 hectares and 34 blazes were still burning.

But he said no emergency warnings were now in place and residents who had evacuated in the Grampians would be able to return home.

"I think the worst is behind us," Lapsley said.

The southeastern state of Victoria endured a scorching heatwave last week, with millions of residents sweltering through up to five days of searing temperatures in excess of 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit).

But cooler temperatures arrived late Friday and while a massive fire was still burning out of control in the Grampians National Park in the state's west, the emergency warning had been downgraded.

On Friday the out-of-control blaze was running so hot it was "creating its own weather" with a plume of hot gases, smoke, ash and other debris created by the fire causing lightning strikes which were starting other blazes. 

Officials said Friday one woman had died as a result of the fires in the Grampians, but Saturday they said the death could have been the result of a medical condition.

"(There's) only sketchy information at the moment ... but we understand that it wasn't because of the fire, it was a medical issue," Country Fire Authority (CFA) deputy chief officer John Haynes told ABC.

Victoria State Premier Denis Napthine said changes made since the Black Saturday bushfires of 2009 in which 173 people died and more than 2,000 homes were destroyed had saved lives during the current emergency.

"There is no doubt that the improvements that have been made from the lessons learnt from Black Saturday have saved lives this week, there's no doubt about that," he told reporters.

Napthine said the message was getting through to people to leave their homes when it was safe.

"If the experts are saying this is a dangerous place for you to be then get out of there while it is safe. There is nothing, no house, no property, that is worth losing your life for," he said.

Bushfires are a common feature of the Australian summer and fires are still burning fiercely in neighbouring South Australia state where 12 homes have been destroyed by the flames.

Last week's heatwave has triggered thousands of wildfires since shifting Monday from the west coast, where it sparked an inferno that razed 56 homes and claimed one life.

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