Firestorm Catches Capital Off Guard

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The smoke came first, drifting over Canberra like a storm front. The sky grew eerily dark and an acrid rain began to fall - of ash, embers and burned leaves. To the city's west and south, the horizon glowed orange, then red: an angry sunset in mid-afternoon. Residents knew from news bulletins what was happening: at least three out-of-control bushfires were roaring toward the Australian capital. But not even firefighters foresaw what would happen next.

The inferno struck at about 3 p.m. on Saturday. Within 24 hours, 400 houses had been destroyed; four people were dead, almost 70 had been admitted to hospital, and more than 2,000 residents had been evacuated from 12 suburbs. Firefighters and emergency workers soon gave up trying to control the blazes and turned to protecting property. In some areas, residents had to do that job themselves, using garden hoses to douse lawns, roofs and walls. Most were forced away by smoke and fierce heat - one man said flames were licking at his car as he jumped into it.

Few of Canberra's 300,000 people escaped the fires' touch: on Sunday, a quarter of the city was without electricity, a sewage plant was shut down, and two suburbs had no water. Twenty roads were closed and bulldozers were used to plow firebreaks around at-risk areas. The fires were the worst ever seen in the bush-ringed city, which takes pride in its parks and tree-lined streets. They were, said Australian Capital Territory Chief Minister John Stanhope, "a holocaust of an extent that we did not and simply could not have the capacity to deal with." Canberrans will be dealing with the aftermath of the disaster for many months to come.

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