Raging bush fires encircle Sydney

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Firefighters issued an urgent plea for reinforcements last night in their struggle to contain more than 100 bush fires threatening lives and homes in New South Wales, Australia's most populous state.

Firefighters issued an urgent plea for reinforcements last night in their struggle to contain more than 100 bush fires threatening lives and homes in New South Wales, Australia's most populous state.

Sydney was surrounded by flames after searing temperatures and strong winds fanned the state's worst fires for seven years. Thousands of people were evacuated from homes, national parks and holiday resorts. More than 20 houses were burnt down.

Christmas celebrations were abandoned and emergencies declared across the state as the fires raged from bushland into populated areas. Towns were cut off and main roads closed. Large parts of New South Wales were blanketed in a thick brown haze.

The flames leapt rivers and bridges, travelling at speeds that made the task of tackling the fires almost impossible. One firefighter was injured when a burning roof collapsed on to him at Mulgoa, west of Sydney, and dozens suffered minor injuries.

Firefighters hoped that the winds would ease after nightfall, allowing them to burn back the undergrowth and starve the flames of fuel before the arrival of more hot, windy weather today. The dangerous conditions are expected to persist for several days.

Bob Debus, the state's Emergency Services Minister, said the threat to property and people was as serious as in January 1994, when nearly 300 fires blazed on the east coast, destroying homes, ravaging bushland and claiming four lives. The latest fires, which started last week in western New South Wales, have consumed thousands of acres of land and killed thousands of sheep and cattle.

The Blue Mountains west of Sydney, the Hunter Valley to the north and the South Coast are among the regions worst affected, as is the area around Canberra, the national capital.

Volunteers joined more than 5,000 firefighters yesterday. Some of the fires had been lit deliberately, a Fire Service spokesman said.

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