With terrifying memories of Australia's deadliest wildfires still fresh, residents chose to flee rather than protect their homes Monday when new blazes broke containment lines and threatened the fringes of the country's second-largest city.
Many victims of the Feb. 7 disaster that officials call "Black Saturday" died in their cars or in the open, and police said they tried, too late, to escape. Since then, officials have urged residents to choose quickly and stick with their decision: leave early when a blaze is near, or stay and fight.
One house was destroyed in the Melbourne suburb of Belgrave South before the fire threat eased Monday, but the panic showed how jittery Australians remained 16 days after the disaster killed at least 209 people.
"I'm no hero — take the house," one woman told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. television as she prepared to leave Warburton, east of Melbourne, the state capital.
Cars filled with personal belongings
In Yarra Junction, Dawn Brown and her husband left their home with some family heirlooms and their wedding video. "I would've liked to stay a bit longer but Ray said, `No, we're going and we're going now,'" she told ABC.
Relief centers in nearby towns filled with people who had loaded their cars with personal belongings and came to wait out the latest emergency.
At least two new fires broke out in southern Victoria state, where temperatures soared into the mid-80s Fahrenheit and strong, gusty winds blew the fires first one way then another.
Another fire that had been burning for more than a week flared and sent embers raining on Melbourne.
Two firefighters who fought the blaze in Belgrave South suffered minor injuries, said Kevin Monk, a state environment department spokesman. The fire burned almost 5,000 acres (2,000 hectares), the Country Fire Authority said.
The fire authority downgraded the threat from the fire Monday night, and said threats from fires burning near Daylesford, northwest of Melbourne, and Warburton also eased as temperatures cooled and the wind dropped.
Death toll from earlier fires at 209
The confirmed death toll from the earlier fires stood at 209 and was expected to rise as more remains were identified from the ruins.
On Feb 7, record temperatures, high winds and forests dried by years of drought combined into infernos that swept a vast area of Victoria, destroying more than 1,800 homes and displacing more than 7,500 people.
Entire towns lay in ruins. Some sites remained sealed off by police as they searched for bodies — the death toll could rise — 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.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Victoria Premier John Brumby announced Monday the two governments would pay cleanup costs of up to 25,000 Australian dollars ($16,000) each for people affected by the fires.
"The cleanup task is absolutely crucial to getting on with the task of rebuilding," Brumby told reporters in Melbourne. He declined to give a total cost for the plan.
Queen Elizabeth II's daughter Princess Anne toured the disaster zone Monday, a day after attending ceremonies to mark a national day of mourning.
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