Sydney counts cost as fires falter

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The Independent Online
AS AUSTRALIA'S most devastating bushfires finally came under control yesterday, Graham Tome scrawled a sign in his suburban Sydney street: 'Sightseers Piss Off'. After a firestorm which turned this residential district of Como into a wasteland, Mr Tome joined thousands of other Australians in sifting through the wreckage and facing up to the shock.

Next door is Sylvania Waters, the place which gave its name to a BBC series about the Australian good life. But yesterday Mr Tome's street, Woronora Crescent, was best described by the Aboriginal origin of its name: black rock. More than 80 houses here and in surrounding streets were reduced to ashes last weekend by a fire which flew from bushland along the Woronora River below, giving Mr Tome and his neighbours only minutes to flee.

Miraculously, his house was spared, but those in front and behind were razed. The fireball was so intense and rapid that blackened leaves and branches are left, like weird sculptures, pointing stiffly in the direction of the wind which carried it. A few doors away is the charred house where Pauline O'Neil, 42, died as her two terrified stepdaughters tried to shelter in their swimming pool.

She was the fourth person to die in the fires which have ravaged 600 miles of the New South Wales coast for the last week and invaded Sydney's urban heartland. Two volunteer fire-fighters were also killed, and an elderly man had a heart attack while trying to save his house. Amid the stench of ash, life returned to Woronora Crescent yesterday in the form of welfare workers, insurance assessors, television crews and ghoulish sightseers.

'If they waited a week it would be OK,' said Mr Tome. 'But not now while we're grieving.' Australians have begun donating food, clothing and money to the victims of a tragedy which has united the country. Kerry Packer, the media tycoon, yesterday contributed Adollars 3m (pounds 1.4m) to the relief effort.

Cooler temperatures and light rain in Sydney yesterday allowed fire-fighters to bring remaining fires under control by 'back burning' buffer zones between residential areas. The hot weather and high winds that had fanned the fires are forecast to return and there are fears that fires could flare again.

(Photograph omitted)