Australian bushfires spread out of control

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The Independent Online

Bushfires blazed across a 400-mile arc of eastern Australia yesterday, jumping rivers, swallowing up vast tracts of land and destroying more than 140 houses and properties.

Bushfires blazed across a 400-mile arc of eastern Australia yesterday, jumping rivers, swallowing up vast tracts of land and destroying more than 140 houses and properties.

The New South Wales government warned that the fires, which have forced thousands of people to flee their homes over Christmas, could burn out of control for another 10 days. Twenty disaster zones have been declared on the outskirts of Sydney and around the state.

Yesterday flames raced through the Royal National Park, just south of Sydney, at such a ferocious pace that authorities predicted it would be virtually burnt out by the end of today. The park – the world's second oldest national park after Yellowstone in the United States – has already been ravaged twice by bushfires in the past eight years.

The same fire was menacing homes in the city of Wollongong, 56 miles south of Sydney, after passing through coastal settlements such as Waterfall, where the public school was reduced to ash. By yesterday, at least 2,500 people had been evacuated around New South Wales.

Thirty houses and a shopping centre were consumed by flames in Silverdale, in Sydney's western suburbs.

Sandra Rodgers, a resident, said her home had been spared but now stood in a blackened wasteland. "Everything is burnt around us," she said. "There's nothing left to burn."

Many of the 100 or so fires now raging started in the Blue Mountains National Park, 40 miles west of Sydney, and swept down to the coast in six hours on Christmas Day, devouring trees and showering beaches with ash. Townships in the Blue Mountains were badly affected; nine houses were wiped out in Warrimoo yesterday by flames leaping 200ft into the air.

Hundreds of firefighters from the neighbouring state of Victoria have joined 5,000 emergency workers trying to contain the fires, which have cut off towns, felled power lines and forced the closure of railway lines and highways.

Forty-six planes have been deployed for water bombing, as well as five helicopters which have been borrowed from the Department of Defence.

One fire leapt across the Nepean river north-west of Sydney yesterday and entered parkland next to the suburb of Baulkham Hills, putting more homes at risk.

With Sydney still enveloped in a haze of smoke, the Bureau of Meteorology warned that the hot, dry weather and strong winds – perfect bushfire conditions – were expected to continue for several days.

While some fires were started by lightning strikes in remote areas, police are investigating at least seven cases of suspected arson.

Phil Koperberg, commissioner of the New South Wales Rural Fire Service, paid tribute to the firefighters, saying they had saved thousands of properties. While there have been no deaths or serious injuries, dozens of firefighters have been treated for smoke inhalation.

About 5,000 sheep were killed in one massive blaze that burnt 50,000 acres of land in western New South Wales.

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