Emergency workers fear return of warm weather will accelerate bushfires

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The Independent Online

Firefighters in New South Wales are preparing for a nightmarish weekend, with hot and windy weather expected to accelerate more than 100 fires already burning out of control.

Firefighters in New South Wales are preparing for a nightmarish weekend, with hot and windy weather expected to accelerate more than 100 fires already burning out of control.

Despite nearly a week of intensive firefighting, a 370-mile perimeter of flames stretched across the state yesterday and the flames had advanced to within 15 miles of central Sydney. One massive fire was just a few miles from towns in the Blue Mountains, a national park popular with Sydneysiders and tourists.

With many of the fires thought to have been started deliberately, five people including three boys aged 15 were arrested on suspicion of arson. Police said that other offenders remained at large.

The boys – who were detained in relation to three bushfires in the small town of Shellharbour, south of Sydney, where several houses were destroyed over Christmas – will be dealt with by the juvenile justice system. One of the two men arrested, a 19-year-old, was charged with lighting a grass fire in the national capital, Canberra.

A spokesman for the Rural Fire Service described the weekend weather forecast of strong southerly winds and temperatures of up to 40C (104F) as "disastrous". Convoys of firefighting crews and vehicles were heading to Sydney from neighbouring states, while other reinforcements were being flown in.

The authorities were hoping to have 15,000 emergency workers in place to stop the fires spreading in the coming days. "We are looking at four very difficult days," the Fire Service Commissioner, Phil Koperberg, said. "We have had varying degrees of success in the last 24 hours, but the vast majority of the fires remain unchecked."

He said that if the bushfires in the Blue Mountains could not be contained, "we will have widespread fire throughout the Blue Mountain towns". Fire officers went from house to house in the affected area yesterday, warning residents to take precautions.

Amid cooler conditions, firefighters raced against time to create firebreaks before the return of hot weather. Residents of inner-city Sydney were asked to use water sparingly to ensure that firefighters had sufficient water pressure to tackle the flames.

The bushfires, the worst in the country since 1994, have blighted Christmas in eastern Australia, destroying 150 homes and forcing the evacuation of about 4,000 people. Tens of thousands of acres of land have been burnt, including most of the Royal National Park south of Sydney.

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