Sydney's wealthy flee fires by yacht

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FIRE-STORMS engulfing Sydney intensified yesterday as the death toll rose to five. At least 100 homes were destroyed, thousands of people were evacuated and new fires roared to within five miles of the city centre.

By yesterday afternoon, the blazes encircled Pittwater on Sydney's northern beaches, where many of Australia's rich and famous have houses overlooking the Pacific. They include Kerry Packer, the media tycoon, actors and film producers. Residents were forced to flee, Dunkirk-style, jumping into power boats, yachts and dinghies moored at private jetties.

Sydney's 4 million people have been stunned by the assault on their city. Perhaps the most alarming fire broke out in the densely populated northern suburb of Chatswood, six miles from the city centre and its icons, the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Opera House. Never in living memory had such a conflagration come so close to the commercial centre.

Chatswood was in chaos as hundreds of people threw survival belongings into cars. The air of unreality was heightened by a handful who seemed oblivious to the billowing smoke: a bride patiently awaited her limousine and two teams of schoolboy cricketers, immaculately dressed in white, carried on with their game.

In Jannali nearby, a woman was found floating face down in a swimming pool behind her burnt-out home. Two children, aged eight and 12, found with her were taken to hospital with serious burns.

Last night Sydney resembled a city at war. Police, ambulance and fire sirens screamed incessantly as it was engulfed by smoke and ash, and suburban streets were crammed with fleeing evacuees. Thousands were sleeping in cars and at emergency relief centres.

As modern Sydney burned, so did a theme park near the Central Coast which recreated the city's early convict days. The park, one of Australia's most popular tourist attractions, was turned to ashes last night.

Police said they had arrested 11 people on arson charges.

A week of temperatures rising beyond 40C (100F), dry winds and low humidity - a freak combination - has given Australia its most widespread bushfires since records began. A change in the weather early this morning, with the hot winds from the desert giving way to milder southerlies from the ocean, gave firefighters their first significant hope of controlling the blazes.

Winter storms were blamed for the deaths of at least two people and left thousands of others without power as snow and freezing rain battered the US north-east and mid-Atlantic states yesterday, Reuter reports from Boston.

(Photograph omitted)