More Australian towns threatened by massive bushfire

By Renju Jose

SYDNEY (Reuters) -Fresh evacuation warnings were issued on Friday for dozens of rural Australian towns as around 1,000 firefighters battled a bushfire in Victoria state which has destroyed properties, killed livestock and is threatening to spread through towns.

More than 2,000 people on Thursday fled from towns in Victoria's west after emergency evacuation orders were issued to leave while it was still safe and head east to the nearby regional hub of Ballarat, 95 km (59 miles) west of Melbourne.

Firefighters, supported by more than 50 aircraft, battled to contain the massive blaze on Friday. Roughly 11,000 hectares (110 square kms) have been burnt, authorities said.

"We are sadly hearing reports of property loss that are starting to come through," Victoria state Premier Jacinta Allan said during a press briefing.

"Given the active nature of the fire and the difficult terrain in the area, it is going to take some time to assess the full extent of the damage."

At least two schools have been closed and students in four have been relocated to other schools, while around 5,000 properties are without power across Victoria.

Stronger-than-expected winds are spreading fires faster and closer to towns as emergency crews urged residents to take shelter indoors if unable to leave.

A cold front off Australia's south coast moved overnight to the regions in the east battling bushfires, pushing temperatures down but strong winds continued to fan the wildfires.

"Unfortunately, those winds did not drop to where we thought they were going to be and that is what led the fire to accelerate where it did," said Jason Heffernan, chief officer of Victoria state fire department.

Emergency crews would begin taking stock of damages from Friday though early reports indicate significant losses of sheds and livestock as the fire spreads through several farms, Heffernan said. One home has been confirmed lost.

(Reporting by Renju Jose in SydneyEditing by Matthew Lewis and Michael Perry)