Fire relief hopes cruelly dashed: Change in wind creates fresh danger as flames race through Sydney suburbs

SEVERAL hundred more people were evacuated last night from the paths of 130 fires which were still raging after five days in Sydney and along the New South Wales seaboard.

The high temperatures and hot winds which have fed Australia's most devastating fires on record gave way late yesterday to more temperate conditions. But hopes of relief held by exhausted firefighters were cruelly dashed. A southerly wind change fanned a fire in the Kuring-gai National Park, in northern Sydney, sending it racing towards several suburbs not previously threatened.

Phil Koperberg, the New South Wales Bush Fire Services Commissioner, said yesterday: 'Our weather respite is drawing to a close. The situation remains critical. It would be wrong to assume that the situation is under control.' Offers of assistance arrived yesterday from New Zealand, the United States and France.

The fires caused widespread destruction in Sydney over the weekend, particularly in the southern suburbs of Como and Janalli, where 87 houses were reported lost in blazes so intense that glass melted from windows and steel roof-girders buckled. About 150 homes have gone up in flames in the state, most of them in Sydney.

Authorities revised to four the death toll, after saying on Saturday that five people had died so far. The latest victim was a 42-year-old woman who died when fire engulfed her Como house on Saturday. She had taken refuge in a swimming-pool with her two daughters, both of whom were badly burnt, after their car caught fire as they tried to flee. Firefighters later warned that seeking shelter in swimming-pools from raging firestorms overhead posed great dangers of asphyxiation.

In the Blue Mountains, a residential district on Sydney's western fringe where about 10 houses have been destroyed, firefighters last night were desperately trying to head off a blaze moving towards the city.

David Davidson, a Sydney resident who spent the weekend saving a friend's house in the Blue Mountains, described coming face-to-face with the firestorm. 'It was immensely frightening. The sun had dimmed to an orange dot in the sky, and the smoke was like boiling black waves. I felt as if I was isolated on an island with a tidal wave coming over me. The sound of the flames exploding was terrifying, like a roaring freight train.'

About 200 elderly people were evacuated from nursing homes, many on stretchers, as the fire in Kuring-gai National Park jumped a road and threatened the northern suburbs of Terrey Hills, St Ives and North Turramurra. The town of Waterfall, south of Sydney, was also evacuated, as were residents of Gosford and Woy Woy on the Central Coast north of Sydney.

Police at the weekend arrested 11 people allegedly involved in starting some of the Sydney fires. Two men, aged 27 and 30, were charged with arson. Nine others face minor charges over breaching the ban on lighting fires, which has operated throughout New South Wales since early last week. The arrests followed 800 calls from members of the public offering information about suspected arsonists.

The 7,500 firefighters battling blazes along a 600-mile (960km) front from Grafton, in northern New South Wales, to the southern coast have done an astonishing job in containing casualties. But they remain at the mercy of the weather in bringing the fires under control. No rain is forecast, and there are fears that the disastrous hot, dry conditions could return by Thursday.

As the fires devastated New South Wales, hundreds of skiers flocked to a Tasmanian resort after four days of unseasonal, summer snowfalls. Mount Field received about a foot of snow on Saturday. The mini ski season was expected to end yesterday with the arrival of warmer weather.

WELLINGTON - Electrical storms and heavy rains lashed New Zealand's South Island yesterday, trapping hundreds of tourists hiking through its south-western forests, Reuter reports. They said the hikers trapped in huts would be airlifted out over the coming days. More than 16in (400mm) of rain fell on Saturday night and yesterday morning, triggering flash floods and landslips that washed out access roads.

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