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State of emergency declared as huge fire closes in on Australian capital

Wildfire smoke billows behind a mountain range on close to Canberra’s southern outskirts. Credit: AP Photo/Rod McGuirk

A state of emergency has been declared in the Australian Capital Territory as a large fire closes in on the capital Canberra.

The public has been warned to "watch and act alert" as flames spread towards the south of the city.

The threat is posed by a blaze on Canberra’s southern fringe that has razed more than 53,000 acres since it was sparked by heat from a military helicopter landing light on Monday, the Emergency Services Agency said.

A helicopter dumps water on burning forests near Canberra. Credit: AP

"The combination of extreme heat, wind and dry landscape will place suburbs in Canberra's south at risk in the coming days," Andrew Barr said, chief minister of the ACT.

Barr called it the worst bush fire threat since the devastating fires of 2003 which killed four people and destroyed almost 500 homes in a day.

It is the first fire emergency for the Australian Capital Territory since those 2003 wildfires.

A local resident from Tharwa, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) south of Canberra, said that landholders and the community were worried that since the 2003 bush fires, there had not been enough land management.

"We all hope that when this is all over there's some revision in how fires are managed and how they're prevented," Sarah Angus said.

Extra crews have been brought to the ACT from interstate to assist local firefighters over the weekend.

The fire is burning at emergency level – the highest on a three-tier scale of danger – and embers have created dangerous spot fires nearby, agency officials said.

Roads were blocked to the village of Tharwa on Friday because the fire posed too much danger for residents to evacuate or return to their homes.

It is the first fire emergency for the Australian Capital Territory since those 2003 wildfires. Credit: AP

Unprecedented fires across southern Australia have claimed at least 33 lives since September, destroyed more than 3,000 homes and razed more than 26.2 million acres.

The danger is forecast to escalate across the south east in the ACT and the states of New South Wales and Victoria as summer temperatures rise over the weekend.

The state of emergency gives Canberra’s local government additional powers to block roads, direct people’s movements, control their property and undertake firefighting work on private land.