Australia Wildfires Force Evacuations

SYDNEY, Australia (AP) -- Authorities ordered the evacuation of nine mountain villages and put dozens of others on alert Thursday as powerful winds worsened wildfires raging over a vast region of southeast Australia.

On the southwest outskirts of Sydney, a blaze gutted three homes and closed the main southern route into Australia's largest city for two hours.

Dozens of larger fires burned across an area stretching 185 miles from the nation's capital, Canberra, to the Gippsland region in Victoria state.

Forests, farms and grasslands parched by one of the worst droughts in a century fueled the fires, which were fanned by 50 mph winds.

Ignited three weeks ago by lightning storms, the fires have destroyed hundreds of thousands of acres of forests and grasslands.

New South Wales fire chief Phil Koperberg warned residents in nine villages 125 miles south of Canberra to evacuate to the nearby ski resort town of Jindabyne as winds spread embers ahead of a massive fire front. Hundreds of villagers were to be moved.

``If you can envisage virtually tens of thousands of firebrands dropping upon the area around there and creating not one or two but literally hundreds of spot fires, that's the picture down there at the moment,'' Koperberg said.

Burning through mountain forests, the fire front was approaching Jindabyne on three sides, but Koperberg said he was confident hundreds of firefighters and fire breaks prepared over the past four days could protect the town.

To the south in Victoria, fire spread into the village of Omeo on hot winds gusting up to 60 mph, razing four homes, damaging the police stations and killing more than 3,600 livestock.

``It was hot, windy, smoky and very scary,'' said Omeo resident Judy Smith, adding that the blaze came within 50 yards of her home. ``It's been like a war zone.''

West of Omeo at the ski resort of Mt. Hotham, firefighters and two helicopter water tankers gained control of a blaze after a late afternoon weather change calmed winds and brought patchy rain _ the first in weeks. The 1 1/2-mile fire front had had burned up to fire breaks around the resort when conditions eased.

Authorities urged residents in nearby Mitta Mitta to prepare to fight fires around their homes.

Canberra also faced extreme danger, with fires burning to its north and west. To the west, residents of Wee Jasper were urged to evacuate as firefighters lost control of a blaze near the town. A string of other small settlements around the city's fringes could also be in danger.

Also in Canberra, police said Thursday they had charged a 16-year-old boy with lighting wildfires. The boy is the third person to be charged with arson in the city.