MELBOURNE (AFP, REUTERS) - Homes were razed, cattle killed and large swathes of land burnt on Sunday (March 18) as bush and grass fires rage in Australia amid hot and blustery conditions, with residents fleeing flame-filled red skies.
Dozens of blazes in western and southwestern Victoria state began on Saturday and a change in wind direction early Sunday worsened the situation.
Some 40,000 hectares have been damaged, and "hundreds of beef and dairy cattle will be lost as a result of these fires", Victoria's Emergency Management Commissioner Craig Lapsley told reporters on Sunday.
Up to 12 homes were affected, he added, with broadcaster ABC reporting they were "destroyed".
"We've got fires, major fires, running. They will get larger in size before we get control of these," Mr Lapsley added, as the weather bureau predicted peak gusts of up to 110 kph.
"No significant injuries, no deaths (in) a very dynamic environment, I would say they (local communities) have done exceptionally well."
Mr Andrew Morrow, the local fire controller at Colac in western Victoria, said two of the bigger fires measuring 3,000 hectares and 6,500 hectares were being blown east from the wind changes.
"We know there's a significant number of properties that the fire has impacted," he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
Residents living near one of the worst-hit areas - the small town of Terang some 200km southwest of Melbourne - were told by authorities it was "too late to leave" and they must "take shelter indoors immediately".
Thousands of homes were left without power and other regions issued with evacuation orders, with fears some of the separate fires could merge in the changing winds.
Ms Elle Moyle was hosting a friend's wedding at a farm in Gazette when a bushfire raged towards the property.
"We smelled the smoke at the venue and within 10 minutes the sky was completely red," she told the ABC.
"The flames were only 100 metres away... the winds were crazy," Ms Moyle said, adding that guests had to shelter in a stable before they managed to escape on a bus.
"We did our best to keep everyone safe and get them out of there but it was very touch and go."
The Bureau of Meteorology warned of severe fire danger on Sunday for the southwest and central areas of Australia’s second-most populous state, with warm temperatures of 25 deg C together with dry and gusty winds creating weather that fans flames.
The warning was also issued for the Australian Capital Territory, home of Australia’s Parliament House and the eastern state of New South Wales where temperatures of up to 41 deg C have been forecast.
Bushfires are a common and deadly threat in Australia’s hot, dry summers, fuelled by highly flammable eucalyptus bushland.
In January, hundreds of holidaymakers had to be rescued in a boat evacuation from the beaches of the Royal National Park south of Sydney, when they became trapped by bushfires.
The 2009 Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria killed 173 people and injured more than 400 others.
The dramatic scenes came on a weekend of extreme weather in Australia with the northern city of Darwin hit by Category Two Cyclone Marcus. It brought down trees and power lines, but no injuries or serious damage was reported.
The system was the strongest to hit the city in three decades, according to authorities, with clean-up efforts underway.
The storm is now moving west towards several remote island and coastal communities.