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Wildfire Threat to Australian Towns Recedes as Weather Cools

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Australian Wildfires
A volunteer firefighter struggles through the strong winds as he surveys fire damage near Mount Victoria, Australia, on October 23, 2013. Photographer: William West/AFP via Getty Images

Oct. 23 (Bloomberg) -- Emergency workers battling wildfires west of Sydney said residents will be able to return to their mountain townships later today after the threat to life and homes receded.

“It would be safe to head back home tonight because the risk has been averted,” Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said at a televised news conference, while warning the danger from the fires burning in the Blue Mountains region and other parts of the state wasn’t over.

Authorities had urged residents to flee the Blue Mountains, an area popular with tourists and walkers about 80 kilometers (50 miles) west of Sydney, as strong winds and rising temperatures fanned the wildfires. Conditions are set to moderate overnight, with a cooler change from the south, the fire service said.

More than 200 homes have been destroyed in bushfires in Australia’s most-populous state since last week, with about 120,000 hectares (300,000 acres) of forests scorched, according to the Rural Fire Service. Bushfire property loss is expected to be more than A$128 million ($123 million) with 987 claims received, the Insurance Council of Australia said today in a posting on Twitter.

The fire service said about 70 blazes are burning across the state, with 29 uncontained. An extreme fire danger is forecast for the greater Sydney and Hunter Valley regions, the Bureau of Meteorology said on its website.

Defense Firing

Australia’s defense department said in a statement that it was aware of fire service findings that a blaze in the Lithgow area was started by a live ordnance exercise. Defense forces were training in the area on the day the fire started, it said, adding the department had begun an inquiry.

The nation’s bushfire season has started early after the warmest September on record.

“The average temperature in Australia has increased by 0.9 degrees over the past 100 years,” Geoff Cary, associate professor in bushfire science at Australian National University in Canberra, told Bloomberg Television. “The fire weather has become significantly worse over the last 35 years.”

Wildfires are a regular feature of Australia’s warmer months. In February 2009, bushfires across Victoria state killed 173 people and destroyed 150 homes in the worst blazes in Australian history.

To contact the reporter on this story: Michael Sin in Sydney at msin12@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Edward Johnson at ejohnson28@bloomberg.net

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