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New South Wales evacuated due to fires

Parts of Australia's largest observatory damaged

COONABARABRAN, Australia | January 13, 2013

Officials in Australia said they have ordered evacuations in New South Wales as bush fires destroyed two homes and parts of the nation's largest observatory.

Record-breaking high temperatures and wind gusts have spawned hundreds of bush fires across the country for approximately 10 days, destroying large swaths of farmland, some homes and thousands of heads of livestock, the Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported.

The latest victim of a bush fire near Coonabarabran is the Siding Spring Observatory, though officials at the Australian National University, which operates the site, said the extent of the damage to the Anglo-Australian Telescope -- the nation's largest -- is unknown, the Sydney Morning Herald reported Sunday.

"I fear a lot of damage has been done ... even if not the wholesale destruction we faced in 2003 at Mount Stromlo Observatory," said Brian Schmidt, a Nobel laureate and ANU astronomer. "Tomorrow will tell and then will come the long, slow process of recovery.

All staff at the observatory evacuated safely, the Herald reported.

Cooler temperatures overnight aided New South Wales firefighters in containing some bush fires throughout the country, the Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported.

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