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Wild Fires Continue to Threaten Sydney - 2002-01-04

More than 80 wild fires continue to threaten Australia's biggest city, Sydney, as emergency crews battle a front line stretching more than 2,000 kilometers. More communities in the southern part of New South Wales have been evacuated, as flames threaten to break through containment lines.

Weather forecasters say milder weather Friday in Sydney will again give way to hotter, windier conditions over the next few days. They warn rain is only a distant hope for at least four or five days in the parched region.

More than 80 fires continue to burn across New South Wales, with coastal areas to the south of Sydney and the Blue Mountains to the west the main hot spots.

Residents of the Manyana and Berringer Lake coastal townships have gathered at a sports ground after being ordered to leave their homes. They have become part of an army of Australians across the state forced to evacuate since the Christmas bush fires erupted.

The crackdown on suspected arsonists continues. Twenty-four people have been arrested on suspicion of starting fires, 15 of them are aged between nine and sixteen, and one is a teenage girl.

Bob Carr, the premier of New South Wales, has announced a list of new punishments for juvenile firebugs, which he hopes will discourage them. "They spell out that any youth conference (legal proceedings) for a youngster who's started a fire must involve a visit to burn victims in burn units. That is designed unapologetically to have a traumatizing effect on young people who've set alight these areas of bush land, and result in a change in their behavior," he said.

So far, 170 houses have been destroyed along with half-a-million hectares of forest and farmland. The cost of the disaster is estimated at $36 million, but no lives have been lost.

The New South Wales Fire Commissioner Phil Koperberg says morale continues to be high among the legions of firefighters.

Mr. Koperberg, however, has said he does not expect a quick or easy victory against the bush fires. He says the fight will be "a long-term campaign."