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Shocked residents survey Australia wildfire wreckage
SYDNEY, Dec 31 (AFP) Dec 31, 2009
Shocked residents returned to survey the wreckage on Thursday after Western Australia's worst wildfire in 50 years engulfed 38 homes in an isolated rural community.

Emotional householders were given the all-clear to go back to Toodyay, north of Perth, where the inferno raced across thousands of hectares (acres) of scrub and farmland destroying buildings, vehicles and cattle.

Emergency crews worked through a second night to contain the blaze, and another major conflagration further north, and were felling unstable trees near roadsides to allow residents to return.

The devastation evoked painful memories of February's "Black Saturday" fires, which swept through entire communities in the state of Victoria killing 173 and razing more than 2,000 homes.

The Fire and Emergency Services Authority (FESA) said Western Australia had not lost so many homes to wildfire in half-a-century, and praised rescuers for saving hundreds more properties and lives.

Only four people were hurt in the Toodyay blaze, including three firefighters who were treated for smoke inhalation and dehydration. Hundreds of ground crew fought the flames backed by water-bombing helicopters.

"Firefighters worked hard getting the fire contained yesterday in difficult conditions and have done a great job protecting communities and saving hundreds of homes and lives," FESA said in a statement.

The government announced emergency assistance, including a 3,000 dollar (2,700 US) grant for clothes and food for people who have lost all their belongings, after a natural disaster was declared.

"These fires are an enormous blow to the people whose homes and property have been affected by the fire," said Gary Gray, parliamentary secretary for Western Australia.

"My thoughts, and the thoughts of all Western Australians, are with them."

Television pictures showed firefighters inspecting gutted homes, farm outhouses with collapsing roofs, burned-out cars and large swathes of charred crops.

Several residents, left with little more than the clothes they were wearing, described terrifying scenes as they abandoned their properties to flames that reached higher than the rooftops.

Householder Caroline Coate said she saw "something I could only describe as rivers of lava and I knew my home was gone" as she fled in her car.

"You've got no idea how bad it was," she said. "I was just glad I got out when I did."

Deanna Flavell choked back tears after realising her home and possessions had gone up in smoke.

"There's nothing left, it's all gone," she told Sky News. "We've lost the whole house, the sheds, the lot."

Lesley Hugg, who runs two caravans parks in Toodyay, said one of her parks was now a gathering point for people who have lost their homes.

"It's just devastating," she told ABC radio. "You want to bawl your eyes out. I'm just trying to stay strong to support and look after everybody, and just bring everybody together."

"The community spirit in Toodyay has just been wonderful. Everybody's offering vans and we've had so many people coming around here asking what can they do to help, so, it's been great."

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