Beachside festivities turn to ash as fires rage

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The Independent Online

The starched white tablecloths at the beachside restaurant where families had gathered for a seafood Christmas lunch were speckled with black: slivers of ash carried in on the breeze from wildfires raging out of control a few miles to the south.

The starched white tablecloths at the beachside restaurant where families had gathered for a seafood Christmas lunch were speckled with black: slivers of ash carried in on the breeze from wildfires raging out of control a few miles to the south.

Scores of fires licked the outskirts of Sydney yesterday, whipped by strong winds and fuelled by undergrowth turned tinder-dry by scorching heat.

The afternoon sun blazed a curious dark orange and an acrid smell hung in the air. At nightfall, the city skyline was enveloped in a thick grey blanket of smoke.

No deaths or serious injuries were reported, but Christmas was cancelled for thousands of frightened people evacuated from homes, holiday resorts and national parks around New South Wales.

"Our house is on fire and the cat's inside," said one distraught woman as she hustled her family into the car and fled the path of the flames.

More than 5,000 firefighters, backed by helicopters and fixed-wing "water bomber" planes, struggled to contain the fires racing through the bushland that rings the city on three sides. One outbreak swept down from the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, and on to the beaches of the South Coast, where it burnt trees in the sand dunes.

As suburban backyards came under threat, residents climbed on to their roofs in the swirling winds and turned garden hoses on the advancing flames. "It's getting closer, and it's getting hotter," said one man, pressing his face into his collar to avoid choking on the smoke. By last night, more than 20 homes had been burnt to the ground and thousands more were under threat.

Bush fires are common in the Australian summer, but rarely on this scale. Bob Debus, the state's Emergency Services Minister, said the position was as grave as in 1994, when four people died as flames swept through Sydney and destroyed homes all the way to the Pacific Ocean on a day that was later called Black Friday.

Referring to the latest emergency, Mr Debus said: "Experienced firefighters in the Sydney area can't remember a fire running so fast in a single day."

More than 100 fires, some of them believed to have been started deliberately, were still burning around New South Wales last night. With hot, windy conditions forecast to persist for several days, no relief was in sight.

Mr Debus said: "This is just the first day of what is likely to be a number of days of severe fire conditions."

The bushland in the west had been ablaze since late last week, and yesterday the worst fears of the state Rural Fire Service were realised. Temperatures soared to 36C and westerly winds gusting to 60mph pushed the fires into populated areas.

Smoke rose 10,000ft into the sky over Sydney and darkened the Sun. Mr Debus said the pall of smoke was so high that it created its own cumulus clouds.

With a total ban on fires declared across the state, the traditional Australian Christmas family barbecue was hit – although gas and electrical barbecues were permitted.

Firefighters concentrated on trying to save homes rather than controlling the fires. Phil Koperberg, commissioner of the Rural Fire Service, said: "They have saved hundreds and hundreds of houses in door-to-door fighting." He had seen "fire storms" up to 90ft high, he said. One fire officer was injured when a burning roof collapsed on him at Mulgoa, west of Sydney, and dozens suffered minor injuries.

In the Blue Mountains, a popular holiday area, townships were cut off and a shopping centre and school were engulfed in flames. The South Coast, another tourist destination, was the site of countless fires, and more than 3,000 people were evacuated from the Royal National Park in southern Sydney. In the town of Glenbrook, one woman told local radio that her back yard was ablaze. "My 82-year-old grandfather is out there hosing, my husband is on the roof," she said. "We've got a couple of possums hanging out of the tree. We've got to get them out."

The Hunter Valley, a wine growing region north of Sydney, was badly affected, as was the Australian Capital Territory, site of the national capital, Canberra. Families were evacuated from homes in Queanbeyan, near Canberrra, after fires lapped close to a fuel depot.

Christmas travellers visiting friends and relatives were left stranded when rail lines and motorways were closed. Sections of the Pacific Highway, the main route north from Sydney to Brisbane, were shut because dense smoke had cut visibility to dangerous levels. People with breathing difficulties were advised to stay indoors.

About 650 homes in north-western Sydney were without electricity after wind and flames sent trees crashing on to power lines.

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