Australia's bushfire largely contained, rain brings relief for firefighters

The aftermath of a bushfire in the area near One Tree Hill in the Adelaide Hills on Jan 5, 2015. -- PHOTO: AFP
The aftermath of a bushfire in the area near One Tree Hill in the Adelaide Hills on Jan 5, 2015. -- PHOTO: AFP

SYDNEY (AFP) - The Australian authorities said on Wednesday they had largely contained a destructive bushfire in the country's south but would remain vigilant against potential flare-ups with a heatwave set to send temperatures soaring, as rain in fire-hit areas brought welcome relief for firefighters.

South Australia's fire service said it had 95 per cent of a huge blaze in the Adelaide Hills in hand, as a scorching afternoon with temperatures rising to 38 deg C was cooled down by rain.

"The fire ground is 95 percent contained," said Country Fire Service chief Greg Nettleton. "We've narrowed it down to two locations where we've got hot spots. This rain won't calm the hot spots, it requires people to do work on them."

He said he was more worried about new fires that started after lightning struck parts of South Australia in the afternoon, with strong wind gusts of up to 120 kmh. "I'm more concerned about the wind gusts over new fires that have just been initiated by lightning because that will cause those fires to spread," he said.

The improved conditions meant a major emergency declared on Saturday would be cancelled, with the operation moving into the recovery phase, South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill said.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott will visit the fire ground on Thursday.

"There is a risk still that fire may re-erupt in some of the areas where it hasn't yet burnt," the fire service's incident controller, Mr Scott Turner, said.

Up to 800 firefighters had been working over the past six days to get the blaze under control. The bushfire was razed 12,500ha of scrub and farmland in the Mount Lofty Ranges, east of Adelaide, over the weekend. Some 167 buildings, including 32 homes, have been damaged or destroyed since last Friday, when the blaze broke out.

Mr Turner said firefighters had mobilised additional resources - including aircraft dumping fire retardant - ahead of the expected rise in temperatures and changing wind conditions.

"The fire conditions today - although are high to severe - are not the same as Friday," Mr Turner said. "We have in excess of 14 aircraft available to us should we see severe weather conditions this afternoon. We will move every asset we have available to protect our communities and to stop further fire spread."

Firefighters are hopeful that if they are able to keep the fire within containment lines on Wednesday, easing weather conditions on Thursday will help them get it fully under control.

Nasa satellite imagery of Adelaide Hills on Saturday had shown large plumes of smoke rising from the fire-affected areas, with officials saying the bushfire conditions were the worst in the area since the 1983 Ash Wednesday blazes.

The 1983 disaster killed more than 70 people in South Australia and Victoria and destroyed thousands of homes and buildings.

The bushfire has already seen 350 insurance claims of more than A$13 million (S$14 million), the Insurance Council of Australia said.

In neighbouring Victoria state, temperatures are also expected to soar, with residents in fire-affected areas told to remain alert even as bushfire warnings were downgraded.

Bushfires are common in Australia's hot summer months. "Black Saturday", the worst firestorm in recent years, devastated southern Victoria in 2009, razing thousands of homes and killing 173 people.

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