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Australia sounds wildfire alert

EMERGENCY officials warned residents in southern Australia that high temperatures, strong winds and lightning forecast for today could spark dangerous new flare-ups in the region's still-burning wildfires.

Victoria state Emergency Services Commissioner Bruce Esplin said that residents of southern Victoria - where wildfires earlier this month killed more than 200 - need to decide quickly whether to stay and defend their homes from the flames or flee to safer areas.

"Don't leave it too late in the day when you can see fire. Make that decision very early and make it a very conservative decision," Esplin said.

Firefighters yesterday were still working to contain four blazes in Victoria.

Officials were increasingly worried that today's predicted temperature of 38 degrees Celsius combined with strong, erratic winds and lightning could send the flames out of control.

Schools and child care centers across the state will be closed today in anticipation of the extreme conditions, Victoria's Department of Education and Early Childhood Development said. Parks in Victoria told visitors to avoid camping in the region's national parks, with some parks closed completely.

The official death toll from the February 7 blazes remains at 210, though officials expect it to climb higher as more remains are identified from the rubble.

On Wednesday, police said it could take another two weeks to conclude the search for dozens still missing. The fires also destroyed 2,029 houses, leaving 7,500 homeless.


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