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SERVICES 
Thursday, 27 December, 2001, 08:44 GMT
Hunt for Australia arsonists
A fire fighter sprays water on the flames in the suburb near Sydney
Properties in the outskirts of Sydney are under threat
Australian Prime Minister John Howard has expressed surprise and dismay at learning that most of the bush fires threatening the city of Sydney were started deliberately.


We're looking at basically at the entire Sydney fringe being an exposure

John Winter,
Fire Service spokesman

Police have formed a special taskforce to find those responsible.

Australia's largest city remains under a thick blanket of smoke for the third day running, as firefighters continue to battle more than 100 bush fires in New South Wales which have destroyed about 150 homes and forced the evacuation of thousands.

And the fires look set to worsen, as more hot, windy weather is forecast to fan them making the next few days critical.

Click here for a map of the fires threatening Sydney

New South Wales Rural Fire Services Commissioner Phil Koperberg said 40 unexplained fires may have been deliberately lit.

The acting New South Wales state Premier, Andrew Refshauge, said the culprits would face the strongest penalties available.

The taskforce will involve criminal investigators, as well as forensic and psychological experts. So far officials have made no arrests.

Temporary reprieve

Milder weather in New South Wales on Thursday eased the fires temporarily, but fire chiefs say the blazes, the worst since 1994, could still burn for up to 10 days.

A shift in the wind has driven the flames up into the Blue Mountains to the west of Sydney, forming a front more than 25 km long.

"We're looking at basically at the entire Sydney fringe being an exposure and we'll be working to protect properties in that area," state Rural Fire Service spokesman John Winter said.

Firefighters and residents have been able to save more than 1,100 homes.

Unique conditions

Air pollution in Sydney is reaching near record level as fires spread from north to south along the city's western perimeter.

Sydney Opera House
Sydney's famous landmark is partly obscured by smoke

More than 5,000 people are working to contain the fires, and reinforcements have already been brought in from the neighbouring state of Victoria, with other states expected to help.

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

Fire Brigades Commissioner Ian MacDougall said firefighters were facing conditions unlike any ever experienced.

"The fire conditions of Christmas Day were unique, with the fire front moving some 60km from the mountains to the coastal regions in one day," he said.

"Another extraordinary characteristic of this fire is that the onset of night time did not bring any respite and firefighters were continuously deployed in direct property protection throughout the night into this morning."

An unusual Christmas

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

Those living in the suburbs south of Sydney have been urged to boil their drinking water after the fires affected the filtration system.

Fireman battles blaze to the south of Sydney
Many firefighters gave up their holidays
Some 12,000 homes remain without power, and many towns have been isolated after roads and rail links were cut across the state.

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

Towns, holiday resorts and national parks have been evacuated.

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.

It is estimated the cost of the fires could top $25m.

Despite the blaze, Mr Refshauge said New Year's Eve celebrations around Sydney Harbour would go ahead.

"I believe Sydney can do it ... the advice at the moment is that we can go on," he said.



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 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Michael Peschardt in Sydney
"A city shrouded in smoke"
See also:

27 Dec 01 | Asia-Pacific
In pictures: Battling the bush fires
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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