Australians flee bushfires, lose homes to flames on Christmas Day

Smoke rises from a fast-moving bushfire near the Great Ocean Road in Victoria, Australia, December 25, 2015. Raging bushfires destroyed two homes and sent residents of a famous Australian beauty spot fleeing for their lives on Friday while firefighters using water-bombing aircraft struggled to control the flames, officials said. REUTERS/AAP ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE. AUSTRALIA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN AUSTRALIA. NEW ZEALAND OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN NEW ZEALAND.

MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Fire crews battled into the night on Friday after raging bushfires reduced homes to ashes in a famous Australian beauty spot on Christmas Day, sending residents fleeing for their lives to the sound of blaring sirens. Water bombing aircraft made a minimal impact on the fires, which set entire trees and hillsides alight in communities along the Great Ocean Road, officials said. Evacuation sirens sounded in towns along the road, a major tourist attraction southwest of Melbourne, as the normally packed route was closed and residents moved to hastily organised evacuation centres nearby. Although the official number of homes confirmed burned stood at two in the evening, a spokesman for Victoria state's emergency services said that was expected to increase substantially. There were no immediate reports of deaths in the fires. “A significant number of houses are believed to be lost,” the spokesman told Reuters. “We are expecting that we will have a significantly increased figure from that.” More than 150 firefighters with eight aircraft and 60 fire trucks spent the holiday fighting the fires. The Great Ocean Road is known for its scenic landscapes and for the bizarre rock formations visible offshore in the Southern Ocean. Victoria's emergency services said 1,500 hectares had so far been burned in the latest bushfire to hit the state this year. Another fire on the outskirts of Melbourne earlier in the day was brought under control. Although a change in the weather was predicted, emergency services said the threat was likely to remain for some time. In 2009, Victoria witnessed Australia's worst ever bushfire disaster, which has since been dubbed 'Black Saturday'. (Reporting by Chris McCall; Editing by Ruth Pitchford)