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Firestorms Swell In Australia

While El Niño was soaking other parts of the world with torrential rains, its impact in Australia and the Pacific Islands has been more of a mixed bag. First a crippling combination punch of heat, drought, and lightning strikes turned acres of forest into flaming tinder in both Australia and Indonesia.

Then in January, Cyclone Les brought rain. Hundreds fled their homes in the Australian outback as floods filled recently scorched land.

Even Australia's most populous city wasn't spared. Fires attacking the suburbs had filled city streets with smoke. More than a million acres burned during the December fires. Firefighters battled more than 100 blazes at the same time. And a single fire spread along a 100-mile front.

Helga Glajicir and her husband couldn't save their Australian home from the fires. "We weren't quite prepared for it at this time of year," Glajicir said. She says El Niño's to blame.

Most of the Pacific Islands' climactic problems can be traced to a weak monsoon season. Like Australia, fires devastated parts of Indonesia and Southeast Asia too. For eight decades, people have set fires as a cheap way to clear fields and forest. But this year instead of monsoons that quickly doused flames, El Niño brought drought.

The fires roared out of control, spreading smoke soup across an area a third the size of the United States. Skyscrapers faded in the noonday sun and millions labored for a breath of fresh air. Left behind ravaged landscape and dead wildlife.

And El Niño's drought also took a human toll. In a normal year, monsoons would pour rain, and fields would be lush with crops of carrots, rice, or potatoes. But because of droughts, authorities say half a million people in this region face starvation. Several hard-hit countries had to launch relief operations in remote areas.

Matthew Thomas, one of a handful of Americans helping to extinguish the flames in Indonesia, has been terrified by what he has seen. "To tell you the truth, it's kind of frightening, you know, to see what what's going on," he said.

Thomas also fears the impact of El Niño at home, in the United States. As spring and summer descend upon the U.S., El Niño is expected to dry up parts of the country the same way it did in Asia. "It makes you think about all the global warming, and what we've done to contribute to El Niño," Thomas said.

Written by CBS News correspondent Barry Petersen. ©1998, CBS Worldwide Inc., All Rights Reserved

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