Sydney shrouded in smoke as bush fires drive 60ft flames into suburbs

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The Independent Online

Flames licked into Sydney's suburbs for the first time and hundreds more people were evacuated from homes around New South Wales as Australia's bushfire crisis worsened.

Flames licked into Sydney's suburbs for the first time and hundreds more people were evacuated from homes around New South Wales as Australia's bushfire crisis worsened.

Winds gusting at up to 50mph and temperatures up to 38C fanned more than 100 fires burning around the state since Christmas Eve. "Mother Nature is throwing her very worst at us," a spokesman for the NSW Rural Fire Service said.

One large fire, which police said might have been the work of arsonists, was within 10 miles of central Sydney last night after racing through a tinder-dry corridor of parkland in the north-west suburbs of North Epping and Pennant Hills, threatening 200 homes.

Firefighters pumped water from backyard swimming pools and helicopters scooped water from lakes on nearby golf courses. "It came bloody close," one resident, Rob Neill, said as firefighters doused embers still burning around his house.

A helicopter dropped water on fast-moving flames advancing towards another neighbourhood, South Turramurra, where residents used buckets and garden hoses to soak their homes. Police closed a nearby motorway because of dense smoke and ordered householders to stay indoors, saying evacuation was unsafe.

Thick clouds of smoke could be seen all over Sydney by its four million inhabitants yesterday, and New Zealand media reported that haze from the fires had settled over Auckland and Wellington, 1,200 miles to the east.

As fires with 60ft flames spread across bushland, residents were evacuated from Kurrajong, in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, from several villages near the Hawkesbury River, to the north, and from Sussex Inlet, a holiday hamlet on the south coast.

The state's Premier, Bob Carr, warned that the fires had reached a critical stage, with the hot, dry conditions forecast to continue for several days.

The fire in Sydney began yesterday afternoon and spread quickly, whipped up by strong north-westerly winds. Another blaze started suddenly in Castlereagh, in the foothills of the Blue Mountains, consuming 200 hectares (500 acres) of bushland in an hour.

The Black Christmas fires, as they are being called, have caused no deaths or serious injuries to humans but have destroyed about 150 homes, killed thousands of sheep and native animals, and forced the evacuation of more than 5,000 people. The fires have so far consumed 300,000 hectares (741,000 acres) of bush, an area twice the size of Greater London.

Eight people, some of them teenagers, have been arrested as suspected arsonists and face a maximum of 14 years in prison if convicted.

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