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Friday, 6 December, 2002, 13:36 GMT
Fires ravage Sydney outskirts
Firefighters tackle Blue Mountains blaze
Firefighters say it is worse than last December's crisis
Thousands of firefighters and desperate residents are battling to douse bushfires threatening scores of homes in the Australian city of Sydney.

Despite some rain overnight and falling temperatures, strong winds are fanning the flames of nearly 80 blazes which remain out of control to the north, west and south of the city.

Eighty aircraft have been deployed to water-bomb the flames, which have destroyed more than 30 homes.

The body of an elderly man, found in a burnt-out caravan at Maroota north of Sydney, brought the number of dead to two, after a 73-year-old man died of a heart attack on Wednesday.

About 4,500 firefighters have managed to save hundreds of homes, but the well-populated northern suburb of Berowra Heights is now in grave danger from the inferno - the worst in the Sydney area for 30 years.

Residents wearing swimming goggles and wrapping wet scarves around their faces joined the battle against a 30-kilometre (18-mile) front of fire advancing on the suburb.

Suspected arson

The blaze doubled in size overnight to 16,000 hectares (40,000 acres).

Open in new window : Sydney bushfires
Fighting the inferno

"We are fighting the fire house by house, which is the hardest way to fight a fire," said fireman Ian Krimmer, quoted by Reuters news agency.

The fires flared up on Wednesday in tinder dry forests encircling Sydney.

An 18-year-old student arrested on Thursday was refused bail when he appeared in court on Friday, charged with arson. He faces a 14-year sentence if found guilty.

There are suspicions that many of the other fires were also lit deliberately.

Winds gusting up to 60km/h (40 mph) have made the firefighters' job all the more difficult.

Blue Mountain blaze

Late on Thursday, a fierce fire broke out in the Blue Mountains, 90 kilometres (55 miles) west of Sydney, triggering a mass evacuation.

Firefighters at Blackheath in the Blue Mountains
Almost 80 fires are now stretching resources to the limit

Another fire is spreading through a national park towards some of Sydney's affluent northern beachside suburbs.

Forecasters say conditions on Saturday and Sunday will help, but Monday will see a return of the very high temperatures, strong winds and low humidity that allowed so many fires to take hold in the first place.

Rural Fire Service commissioner Phil Koperberg said: "We're going to be in trouble in New South Wales until it rains".

"We've either had fires in the north or the south or the west, but rarely have we had fires effectively along the length and breadth of the corridor, which is Penrith to Sydney city."

State authorities said about 800 people spent the night in emergency shelters because their homes were threatened. Some schools have also been closed.

Traffic convoys

Fires and dense smoke have closed major highways into Sydney, leaving commuters stranded. Police organised escorted convoys overnight but no vehicles carrying flammable goods were allowed through.

Firemen pump water from a swimming pool at Glenorie
Firefighters take water wherever they can

Mr Koperberg praised his colleagues. "The men and women on the ground have performed miraculously," he said.

The BBC's Dominic Hughes in Sydney says the speed and ferocity of the bush fires has shaken even the most experienced firefighters.

Last Christmas, a wall of flames ringed Sydney, burning through 777,000 hectares (1.9 million acres) and destroying nearly 200 homes.

Fires are natural to the arid bush in Australia - which is suffering one of its worst droughts in 100 years - but some of the blazes are thought to have been started deliberately.

Other fires are thought to have been started by carelessly discarded cigarette ends.

Fireman fights bushfire

The BBC's Michael Peschardt
"Choking smoke and ash filled the air"

Key stories

See also:

04 Dec 02 | Business
04 Dec 02 | Asia-Pacific
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08 Nov 02 | Asia-Pacific
05 Dec 02 | Entertainment
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