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Sunday, 10 November, 2002, 15:41 GMT
Brief respite for Australia firefighters
Destroyed house in Mittagong
Too little, too late: A resident and his former home
Light rain and an unexpected drop in temperatures have come as a brief respite to Australian firefighters battling more than 100 bushfires in the state of New South Wales.

Firefighters were able to bring many of the fires under control around the city of Sydney, despite winds of up to 25 mph (40 km/h) fanning new blazes.

Lighting a fire is against the law. If anybody dies, we will charge you with murder

Andrew Refshauge, NSW Deputy Premier
"All fires in the Sydney area are contained," said a fire official.

About 3,000 firefighters have been deployed across NSW as Australia experiences the driest conditions in 100 years.

Almost 470,000 hectares (1.16 million acres) of land have been burned in the state - one of five hit by what officials say is becoming one of Australia's worst bushfire seasons.

Officials say the threat will remain high, with forecasters predicting an early return to high temperatures and low humidity.

Worst in a decade

"These fire conditions are the worst we have had in generations. This is as serious as it gets," said state Premier Bob Carr at a memorial service in Sydney for firefighters who lost their lives last year.

Fire-fighting helicopter
Helicopters have been bombarding the flames with water
"The state is baking dry and the drought and the fire season are on us at the same time," he said.

Rural Fire Services chief Phil Koperberg said they were expecting firefighters from around Australia to arrive to relieve their colleagues in NSW.

"We're taking advantage of the lull in other states by inviting them to assist us, thus allowing some of our very, very stressed fellows to get some rest," Mr Koperberg said.

A total fire ban has been declared across the state and many national parks have been closed.

This is as serious as it gets

Bob Carr, NSW Premier
Deputy Premier Andrew Refshauge warned that anyone who deliberately lit fires would be in deep trouble.

"Lighting a fire is against the law. If anybody dies we will charge you with murder," he said.

Water fears

In the Hunter Valley wine district, 75 miles (120 km) north of Sydney, winds have pushed flames across 61,000 hectares (151,000 acres) near the town of Cessnock.

Residents near the fire front were hosing down their homes in case the blaze leapt containment lines set by firefighters, but no evacuations had been ordered, the Associated Press news agency reported.

To the south, the fire which destroyed five homes and several industrial properties around the town of Mittagong on Saturday continued to burn.

Woman in Mittagong
The worst affected have no homes left
That blaze cut off electricity to a water filtration plant that pumps water to reservoirs supplying several towns outside Sydney.

Authorities imposed water restrictions on about 25,000 people in 12 small towns and sent fleets of water trucks to maintain essential supplies.

Maintenance teams have started reconstruction work but the damage was described as extensive, said Colin Judge, a spokesman for Sydney Water company.

The bushfire season usually runs from December to February, when summer's heat sends temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit).

But this year, the fires began months early with much of country experiencing the driest conditions for a century.

Last year, dozens of homes were destroyed by hundreds of fires around Sydney over Christmas and the New Year.

The BBC's Phil Mercer
"Many of the fires remain out of control"
See also:

09 Nov 02 | Asia-Pacific
08 Nov 02 | Asia-Pacific
08 Oct 02 | Asia-Pacific
13 Jun 02 | Americas
07 Jan 02 | Science/Nature
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