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Wednesday, 26 December, 2001, 13:17 GMT
Fresh fears over Australian inferno
Firefighters expect to battle bush fires for days
Bush fires stretching across 700 kilometres (420 miles) in eastern Australia could get worse and burn out of control for 10 days, fire chiefs have warned.

About 140 homes have burned down and thousands of people have been evacuated amid fears that more houses will soon be lost.

More than 100 fires are blazing near Australia's biggest city Sydney. They are being fuelled by strong winds to the north, south and west.

Boats starting the race with Sydney obscured by smoke
Flame red sky over the Sydney to Hobart boat race
The front line stretches for more than 700 kilometres (450 miles), creating an arc of devastation around the city.

Reinforcements have been flown in from the neighbouring state of Victoria to join the battle against the flames. Hundreds of firefighters are also on standby in South Australia.

Dozens of emergency workers have been treated for minor burns but there are no reports of serious injuries.

The navy has sent in five helicopters to help evacuate towns on the front line.

The New South Wales state government has declared at least 20 disaster zones.

Sydney Opera House
Sydney's farmous landmark is partly obscured by smoke
Towns, holiday resorts and national parks have been evacuated.

Sydney is blanketed in smoke haze and there is concern about blazes on the north-western outskirts.

The authorities believe most of the fires were started deliberately - and they say they're making progress in finding the culprits.

In the north-eastern state of Queensland, ambulance officials say five people have died in Brisbane from heart attacks induced by the heat.

Several major fires are still burning in the suburbs of the Australian capital, Canberra.

Settlements in the Blue Mountains, 80 kilometres (50 miles) west of Sydney, have been devastated.

Wind fans flames

Firefighters are unlikely to get any help from the weather soon, with hot, dry, strong winds forecast to continue for the next several days.

Fireman battles blaze to the south of Sydney
Many firefighters gave up their holidays
New South Wales emergencies minister Bob Debus told the BBC that the fires were "extraordinarily fierce" with flames leaping as high as 60 metres (198 feet).

The BBC's Red Harrison in Sydney says the firemen - many of them volunteers who gave up Christmas to fight the blazes - could face their most dangerous days in many years.

Prime Minister John Howard has toured the Waragamba area on the outskirts of Sydney to see the damage for himself.

He has promised federal government aid to help the stricken region.

Traffic nightmare

Road blocks and diversions are causing major traffic delays, as Sydney lies shrouded in smoke and haze for a second successive day.

Many residents were forced to abandon Christmas celebrations and spent Tuesday fighting fires in their backyards in an effort to save their homes.

A resident hoses his roof as fires rage in the outer suburbs of Sydney
Residents have been hosing down their roofs

Some 5,000 firefighters helped by aircraft dropping water are trying to control bush fires in temperatures around 40 Celsius and winds of 90 km/h (56 mph).

Cameron Wade, a spokesman for the Rural Fire Service, said so far the fires were not as widespread or as devastating as outbreaks that killed four people in 1994, but were spreading rapidly.

"In 1994, there were 284 fires going at any one time," Mr Wade said. "This is only about 75, but actually the weather conditions and their speed [of movement] is unprecedented."

The BBC's Phil Mercer
"Sydney lies shrouded in smoke and haze"
NSW Emergencies Minister Bob Debus
"The fire has been extraordinarily intense"
See also:

25 Dec 01 | Asia-Pacific
In pictures: Christmas goes up in smoke
27 Jan 01 | Asia-Pacific
Australia swelters in heatwave
13 Aug 00 | Americas
Overseas experts boost fire effort
11 Jul 00 | Europe
Fighting forest fires
03 Jan 98 | Asia-Pacific
Thousands evacuated as bush fires rage
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