Death Toll in Australia Wildfire Rises Amid New Warnings

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) - Officials warned Tuesday the
wildfires that devastated southern Australia this month could flare
anew when high winds and hot temperatures sweep the region later
this week, and raised the death toll from the blazes to 210.

Australia's insurance council, meanwhile, reported thousands of
claims totaling more than a half-billion dollars in damage from the
Feb. 7 fires that tore through Victoria state.

Four major fires are still burning in the region, and officials
warned that temperatures are expected to rise on Friday to the high
90s Fahrenheit (high 30s Celsius) and be accompanied by strong
winds.

"It is important that people understand the events of Black
Saturday are not over," Victoria state's Emergency Services
Commissioner Bruce Esplin said, referring to the Feb. 7 fires.
"The devastating fire season continues."

Hundreds of fires swept a vast area of Victoria when record
temperatures of around 117 F (47 C) and 60-mph (100-kph) winds and
forests dried by years of drought combined into infernos. The
confirmed death toll rose Tuesday to 210 and was expected to climb
further as more remains were identified from the rubble.

Firefighters were continuing to battle the blazes while bracing
for the expected change in conditions.

"We have to do our very best to manage both the fatigue amongst
our crew, but keep going hard enough so we can contain these fires
and prepare for Friday," state Country Fire Authority chief
Russell Rees said.

Esplin said at least 2,029 homes had been destroyed in the fires
- up from the previous tally of 1,800 homes - and the Insurance
Council of Australia on Tuesday reported that 6,230 claims totaling
790 million Australian dollars ($510 million) had been lodged.

Meanwhile, a funeral was held Tuesday near Australia's capital,
Canberra, for a firefighter killed last week while fighting the
blazes in Victoria. Around 500 mourners attended the service for
David Balfour, who died after being struck by a tree.

Some 7,500 people have been displaced by the fires, and entire
towns lay in ruins. Some sites remained sealed off by police as
they searched for bodies and evidence of arson. One man has been
charged with starting one of the deadly fires, and arson is
suspected in at least one other.


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