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Wildfires threaten Australian capital, southeast towns

Firefighters protect a property from bushfires burning near the town of Bumbalong south of Canberra on February 1, 2020. - Authorities in Canberra on January 31, 2020 declared the first state of emergency in almost two decades as a bushfire bore down on the Australian capital. (Photo by PETER PARKS / AFP) (Photo by PETER PARKS/AFP via Getty Images)

CANBERRA, Australia — Wildfires burned out of control near Australia’s national capital, Canberra, and across surrounding New South Wales state on Saturday, with endangered residents warned to prepare to evacuate.

The capital region declared a state of emergency on Friday because of a fire that by Saturday covered 35,800 hectares (88,500 acres) of forest and farmland south of Canberra, Australian Capital Territory Emergency Services Agency Commissioner Georgeina Whelan said.

Spot fires were sparked by embers carried on winds up to 10 kilometers (6 miles) from the fire front, and some of those fires will eventually merge with the main fire, she said.

The fires threaten Canberra’s southern suburbs and the nearby village of Tharwa, which has been cut off by road closures since Saturday morning.

“The fire may pose a threat to lives directly in its path,” Whelan told reporters in Canberra. “Driving is extremely dangerous and potentially deadly.”

The fire was downgraded from emergency level late Saturday to the second level on a three-tier scale of danger due to a fall in temperatures and winds. But several fires continued to burn at emergency levels in southeast New South Wales.

New South Wales Rural Fire Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said sheds and stables had been destroyed but no homes had been reported lost to wildfires on Saturday.

The continuing state of emergency is the first in the Australian Capital Territory since 2003, when wildfires killed four people and destroyed almost 500 homes in a single day.

Fires across southern Australia have claimed at least 33 lives since September, destroyed more than 3,000 homes and razed more than 10.6 million hectares (26.2 million acres).

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