Fire-Ravaged Aussie Towns Battle Floods

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) -- Light rain and cooler air brought hope Monday to thousands of firefighters battling blazes in southeast Australia.

Over the weekend, temperatures had topped 104 degrees Fahrenheit as winds of 43 mph fanned fires near rural villages and ski resorts in New South Wales and Victoria, Australia's two most populous states, destroying about 20 homes.

``The situation has eased considerably,'' fire services spokesman Lawrence Orel said Monday. ``We've got a drop in temperatures and even light drizzle.''

More than a thousand people evacuated Sunday were returning to their homes, he said.

In northeast Victoria, hundreds of farm animals, many sheds and three bridges were lost to the fires, officials said.

A 75-mile fire front came within 500 yards of the Victorian town of Omeo but cooler air and southerly winds late Sunday turned back the blaze.

``There is a mist of low cloud across the paddocks and houses,'' Omeo resident Katrina Pendergast told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio. ``It's just a completely different view. Where there was once trees, it's just blackened paddocks with exposed tracks.''

More than 12 inches of rain fell over the weekend in northern parts of western Australia, washing out roads linking remote towns. Flooding in Queensland in the northeast also blocked roads and a rail link.

Hundreds of firefighters on standby in the nation's capital, Canberra, were reassigned Monday to Victoria and the Kosciusko National Park area in southeast New South Wales as fears eased over a fire burning six miles from the city.

But authorities warned that many blazes were still out of control.

Forests and grasslands remained tinder dry from a yearlong drought, they said, and higher temperatures and strong winds were expected later in the week.

About 4,000 firefighters bulldozed fire breaks around the blazes and started small fires elsewhere to better direct and control the flames.

``These fires will go on, they cannot be put out quickly. The task is not yet finished,'' Victorian state Premier Steve Bracks told reporters.

Two helicopters that can dump 2,400 gallons each were sent from the United States to join some 100 aircraft already helping fight the fires.

Canberra was hit eight days ago by fires that killed four people and destroyed 530 houses. Officials said that a state of emergency declared in the national capital last week was likely to be lifted Tuesday.