Infernos engulf Sydney suburbs: Thousands evacuated as more than 100 bushfires rage out of control across New South Wales

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The Independent Online
AUSTRALIA'S eastern seaboard along the New South Wales coast, including parts of Sydney were ablaze yesterday in Australia's worst bushfires. Sydney, the country's largest city with a population of 4 million, was cut off last night as fires surrounded the city on three fronts: the Central Coast district to the north, the Blue Mountains in the west and the Royal National Park south.

The national park, Australia's oldest, was completely destroyed, leaving a death trail of kangaroos, possums, birds and other wildlife. More than 100 fires were out of control along a 600-mile front, stretching from the Queensland border in the north to the coastal town of Bateman's Bay in the south. About 5,000 firefighters from other states and hundreds of troops were flown in yesterday to help thousands of state firefighters, many of them volunteers, stave off further catastrophe.

Temperatures of more than 100F and hot, dry winds turned yesterday into Black Friday for Australia's most populous state, confirming the worst fears of firefighters who have spent three days and nights trying to control the infernos.

As thousands of people were evacuated from towns and suburbs, Terry Griffiths, the New South Wales Minister for Emergency Services, said: 'We have given up fighting the fires. We're fighting now to save lives and property.'

Fires moved south from the Central Coast, a popular seaside resort area packed with thousands of holidaymakers, and jumped the Hawkesbury River late yesterday then moved into Sydney's wealthy northern suburbs, located in tinder dry bushland. As darkness fell, houses began exploding in flames in the suburbs of Turramurra, Wahroonga and Lindfield, Sydney's stockbroker belt. For most of yesterday, the city was covered by an eerie red glow from palls of smoke blocking out the sun. Fires engulfed houses in the south coast fishing village of Sussex Inlet where a nursing home was evacuated.

Authorities confirm that some fires were deliberately lit. Police yesterday arrested a 13-year-old boy and charged him with lighting a fire in the Lane Cove National Park in northern Sydney.

The state-wide fires began in isolated blazes earlier this week, and were quickly fanned into flames 80ft high by several days of high temperatures, hot winds and low humidity - the ideal conditions for bushfires to take hold. By last night, they had wiped out almost one million acres of forest and bushland. So far three people have died, including two firefighters. Amateur glider pilots reported high ash clouds blowing over New Zealand, 940 miles across the Tasman Sea.

Brian Howe, the acting Prime Minister, yesterday paid tribute to the firefighters for containing the losses of life. Phil Koperberg, the New South Wales Bush Fire Services Commissioner, said: 'We should have lost much more property by now. Their sheer commitment, determination and bloody-mindedness has prevented it.'

After last night's conflagrations in suburban Sydney, however, the losses are likely to go much higher, especially as no let-up in the blistering weather conditions is expected before late tomorrow. Past bushfires in Australia have caused greater losses, particularly the Ash Wednesday fires of 1983 in Victoria and South Australia in which 75 people died and 2,500 homes were destroyed. But no fire has engulfed a wider area, including a major city, in such an uncontrollable way as the latest disaster.

Farmers groups blamed environmentalists for lobbying for the reduction of controlled burning of bushland by forest workers in recent years. The practice destroys layers of dry leaves and bark on the forest floor but not trees, before the height of the summer fire season.

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