Fires rip through Australia's southeast

Thousands flee their homes in state of Victoria

By JOSHUA BERLINGER, CNN
Darrian Traynor/Getty Images

A brush fire burns in Jumbuck, Australia, on March 4, 2019.

(CNN) - A series of devastating brush fires have swept through Australia's southeastern state of Victoria, destroying multiple properties and forcing thousands of people to flee their homes.

The blazes were caused by lightning strikes late last week, according to Andrew Crisp, the Victoria emergency management commissioner. Crisp said that as of Monday morning, 19 fires were still burning.

"This is a challenging time and it's going to be a very busy time for firefighters and emergency services across the state," he said.

State emergency management authorities have issued a series of serious warnings in recent days, urging residents in danger to "act immediately to survive."

"It's hot, dry, smoke in the air," Trevor Owen, an official with Australia's Country Fire Authority, said Sunday.

"It's tough and dangerous work, so full credit to our firefighters."

More than 2,000 firefighters have been deployed to fight the blazes and thousands have been evacuated, said Victoria Premier Dan Andrews.

As of Monday, one of the fires -- in Bunyip State Park -- covered more than 11,500 hectares (about 28,400 acres), according to the Cardinia Shire government's website.

Much of the park and the area to its south remained under an evacuation order as of Monday morning.

Cardinia Shire Mayor Graeme Moore described the blaze as "devastating" in an interview with CNN affiliate 9 News Australia.

Andrew Clarke, who owns the Jinks Winery inside the park, told 9 News how he watched his vineyard burn up on live television. He has lived and worked there for the past 40 years.

"It was pretty distressful having my kids there and seeing their reaction to all of that -- it was horrible. It was really bad news," Clarke said.

"My vineyard is basically melted. I was meant to be picking my grapes yesterday, the first lot. That's about it, we've just lost everything," he said.

Crisp, the Victoria emergency management commissioner, said the authorities have had some luck in fighting the Bunyip fire in recent hours and it has been downgraded from an emergency warning to a watch and act.

Better weather and possibly rain is expected in the state Wednesday and could help firefighters battle the blazes, Crisp said. "But we can't afford to become complacent over the next couple of days."

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