Image: Firebreak being prepared
Paul Crock  /  AFP-Getty Images
Firefighters watch an excavator prepare a firebreak inside Lysterfield State Park near Melbourne, Australia, on Thursday.
updated 2/26/2009 11:58:29 AM ET 2009-02-26T16:58:29

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

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

Exhausted firefighters on Thursday were still working to contain four major blazes in Victoria.

Officials were increasingly worried that Friday's predicted temperature of 100 degrees Fahrenheit 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 Friday in anticipation of the extreme conditions, officials said. Parks Victoria told visitors to avoid camping in the region's national parks on Friday, with some parks closed completely.

The official death toll from the Feb. 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.

Meanwhile, Victoria police on Thursday arrested two 18-year-old men accused of stealing items from a fire-damaged home — the first arrests associated with suspected looting from the Feb. 7 blazes.

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