2 Mar 2009

Firefighters brace for more extreme weather

10:15 pm on 2 March 2009

Emergency services in the Australian state of Victoria are adamant they are not "crying wolf" with warnings about extreme fire danger followed by an extreme storm event over the next couple of days.

Thousands of firefighters are on alert in an unprecedented plan to protect Victoria from more bush fires.

On Monday, four major bush fires were still burning throughout the state. A total fire ban is in place.

Strong winds are expected to hit the devastated area on Monday. The temperature is set to rise to 32 degrees Celsius on Tuesday, with winds of up to 150km/h, before a cool change later on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Premier John Brumby says there are more people on the ground and from other parts of Australia, more tankers and more aerial appliances than ever before in Victoria's history.

Mr Brumby said the weather would be as bad as that experienced in the Ash Wednesday fires of 1983 and Black Friday in 1939, but not quite as bad as the inferno of Black Saturday on 7 February in which at least 210 people perished.

More than 600 schools and early childhood centres and 30 national parks will be closed on Tuesday.

Authorities are pleading with residents throughout the state to prepare for the conditions. Emergency Services Commissioner Bruce Esplin said there was no room for complacency.

"This is not a case of crying wolf. This is the case of a very genuine concern about the weather tonight and tomorrow, both from a fire perspective and from a storm perspective," he said.

Mr Esplin said emergency services had done everything they could to be prepared, but the community also needed to step up.

Department of Sustainability and Environment chief officer Ewan Waller said firefighter safety was also a big concern, as strong winds are likely to bring down many trees.

Searches for people still missing in the Black Saturday fires have been suspended. The army says 37 people remain unaccounted for.