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14 die in Victorian bushfires

BUSHFIRES killed 14 people in the region of Victoria yesterday and destroyed at least 100 homes as a "once in a century" heatwave sparked 40-plus degree Celsius blazes across two Australian states, police said.

"There are 14 dead. These areas are still very hot so we cannot get into many of the areas," a police spokesman said.

Fire bans have been declared in three states, the public has been advised to look out for the elderly after a series of "sudden deaths" blamed on the heat, and authorities have warned that arsonists would be dealt with harshly. Researchers believe about half the fires have been started deliberately.

More than 140 fire fighters were deployed to a fire in parkland at Bunyip state park near Pakenham on the eastern outskirts of Melbourne, battling overnight into yesterday to halt a blaze which had destroyed more than 150 hectares of forest.

Aircraft were deployed at another fire in Victoria state and were on standby in New South Wales, where fire fighters were also struggling to stop a fire in the Sydney district of Lane Cove from spreading to neighboring homes.

A spokesman for Victoria's Country Fire Authority said reinforcements were being sent to the fire near Pakenham, amid fears a change in winds yesterday could make it spread.

"It is extremely dry. We do have some concern about the winds picking up and having an impact on the fire," the spokesman said.

Aircraft had been deployed at another fire at Dargo in the state's east, which had burnt 30 hectares, while in New South Wales fire crews had been doubled in anticipation of the increased danger.

Fires burned at several locations in New South Wales, threatening homes in some areas, while smoke hung over parts of Sydney from fires burning in and near Australia's largest city.

There were concerns the fire at Lane Cove National Park could potentially cause major damage, as it was within the Sydney metropolitan area, said fire service chief Paul McGuiggan.

"We want to make sure it is definitely out. A lot of homes back onto it," he said.

Tens of thousands of firefighters are on standby to cope with bushfire outbreaks, with authorities in Victoria warning Saturday's conditions could be worse than those that led to the deadly "Ash Wednesday" fires of 1983, which killed 75.

Mortuaries in both cities already have been struggling to cope.


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