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Last Updated: Monday, 25 September 2006, 05:44 GMT 06:44 UK
Australia hit by early bushfires
Flames glow behind fire-ravaged trees near Woy Woy, Jan 2006
Australia suffers from annual bushfires
Australian firefighters are battling to limit the damage caused by more than 50 bushfires which broke out around Sydney over the weekend.

Officials said they suspected at least some of the fires, which destroyed seven homes, were started by arsonists.

The fires herald an early start to the annual bushfire season, raising fears that the blazes might be particularly strong this year.

Many of these fires occur naturally, but arson is also a common problem.

Blazes erupted to both the north and south of Sydney on Sunday, fanned by 100 km/h (60 mph) winds and very hot, arid conditions.

Firefighters took advantage of slightly cooler temperatures on Monday to conduct preventative backburning operations.

While touring the badly affected Picton region, New South Wales Rural Fire Service Commissioner Phil Koperberg said investigations were under way into the cause of the fires.

"Some of the fires at least, through the process of elimination, we suspect very strongly were the consequence of acts of arson," he told reporters.

Hottest August on record

Bushfires are a regular feature of Australia's summer months, burning thousands of hectares of forests every year.

Scientists warn that Sunday's blazes may forecast problems later in the year, when conditions get hotter, drier and more prone to fires.

"It's a major concern that fire seasons seem to be starting earlier and lasting longer," Kevin O'Loughlin, the head of the Bushfire Co-operative Research Center, told local media.

"We've got to get a greater understanding on this, on the frequency of fires, the earlier start to the season and if there's any connection to climate change," he said.

He added that Australia had reported its hottest, driest August on record this year.

Some of the fires may have been started deliberately

Australian arsonists under watch
03 Jan 06 |  Asia-Pacific
Bushfires edging towards Sydney
01 Jan 06 |  Asia-Pacific
Australian fires continue to rage
02 Jan 06 |  Asia-Pacific

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