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Australia braces for 'highest-risk' bushfire season

AUSTRALIA has begun preparing more than 1,000 fire refuges and will recast its national alert system to warn of "catastrophic" bushfires as a new fire season threatens to eclipse blazes this year which killed 173 people.

New South Wales Premier Nathan Rees has warned December-February could be "the highest risk summer that we have ever faced", with drought, climate change and dry forest undergrowth combining to create perfect fire conditions.

With the new fire season just two weeks away and authorities warning it could rival "Black Saturday" blazes in February which destroyed more than 2,000 homes, authorities said they were preparing "neighbourhood safer places" to be ready by November.

The refuges would range from school halls to sports grounds to community halls, and would be required to meet tough fire protection standards, authorities in New South Wales said.

"It's a place of last resort, a last place that people can go and where we would move trucks and personnel to protect them as fires approached," a spokesman for the state's Rural Fire Service told Reuters today.

The Black Saturday fires, fanned by heat wave conditions and winds topping 100 km per hour, struck in Victoria state on Feb. 7 this year and caused the highest ever loss of life from bushfire in the world's most fire-prone country.

Several towns near the state capital Melbourne were destroyed or severely damaged, or 5,500 buildings, with the insurance bill topping A$1.12 billion ($1.01 billion).

Victorian authorities and other states have changed their system of alerts for days of "catastrophic" fire danger, warning people in bushfire-prone areas to leave their homes on days of severely hot weather.

It is expected there will be at least one day of the highest possible fire risk in most states this summer.

Authorities in Victoria have also suggested the government consider tough electronic monitoring of known arsonists to prevent a repeat of this year's disastrous bushfires, which could see firebugs barred from entering fire-prone areas.


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