MELBOURNE, Australia – Scores of people fled their homes in southern Australia on Monday fearing that rising temperatures and strong winds could fan blazes burning in forests into unstoppable firestorms.
Tensions were high in Victoria, where devastating fires swept a vast area of the state on Feb. 7, destroying more than 1,800 homes and killing more than 200 people in the country's worst fire disaster.
Some of the blazes have been burning for weeks in the state, though all fires were being contained in unpopulated areas by firefighters hosing down the edges and building firebreaks.
But after several days of temperatures in the low 80s, temperatures went up into the mid-90s, Monday while gusting winds caused at least two fires to flare and threatened to carry glowing embers into new areas.
Residents were warned to either leave early or prepare themselves to fight the fires.
Country Fire Authority officials said properties around Upwey on the eastern verge of the state capital of Melbourne and at Enoch Point, about 50 miles northeast, could be under threat.
Simon O'Callaghan, a member of the Yarra Ranges Shire council, said more than 100 people left their homes near Enoch Point early Monday.
"It's a precaution in terms of getting people out early," O'Callaghan told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.
The conditions were far less severe than on Feb. 7, when record temperatures of around 117 F (47 C) and 60-mph (100-kph) winds created what officials have dubbed "Black Saturday." The confirmed death toll stands at 209 and is expected to rise as more remains are identified from the ruins.
Queen Elizabeth II's daughter Princess Anne toured the disaster zone on Monday, a day after arriving in Australia to attend ceremonies marking a national day of mourning for the victims.
Princess Anne met firefighters and other emergency workers in the town of Wandong.
Some 7,500 people were displaced by the fires, and some entire towns lie in ruins. Some sites remain sealed off by police as they search for bodies and evidence of arson. One man has been charged with starting one of the deadly fires, and arson is suspected in at least one other.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Victoria Premier John Brumby announced Monday that the two governments would pay all the cleanup costs of people affected by the fires.
Brumby said a contractor would be selected by the end of the week to begin demolishing damaged buildings and clearing away rubble in the disaster zone. Families would get cleanup services worth up to 25,000 Australian dollars ($16,000) each.
"The cleanup task is absolutely crucial to getting on with the task of rebuilding," Brumby told reporters in Melbourne. He declined to give a total cost for the plan.