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Australian Firefighters Slowly Winning Battle Against Wildfires Near Sydney - 2002-12-08

Firefighters in eastern Australia say they are slowly winning their battle against dozens of blazes burning around Sydney. They are taking advantage of favorable weather conditions, although a number of fires still rage out of control to the north of Australia's biggest city.

Authorities say after five days of emergency conditions, the outlook is beginning to improve. At least 80 fires have broken out around Sydney. Cooler temperatures and moderate winds have given firefighters an opportunity to gain the upper hand over many of the fires. Further relief is in sight with rain forecast for Tuesday.

Blazes still burn out of control to the north of Sydney and in the Blue Mountains to the west. It is thought many were started by arsonists or by careless smokers.

The New South Wales State Premier Bob Carr urges people to be more careful. "In these conditions it is cruelty to your fellow Australians, cruelty to your community to toss a cigarette, a lighted cigarette, from your car," he said.

Officials warn the wildfire emergency is far from over with strong winds expected to sweep the region in the next day. Four-thousand firefighters are on the front-line, protecting suburban homes from dozens of separate blazes. Volunteer crews are on their way from neighboring states as Australia endures its worst drought for 100 years.

Aircraft are water-bombing the flames. Some controlled fires have been lit to reduce the amount of fuel available for the bush blazes.

No homes have been destroyed in the past 48 hours, and many roads that had been closed by the fires have re-opened. One emergency worker said once the fires get going it sounds like a "wild animal coming toward you."

Australia's Environmental Protection Authority says air pollution from the bushfires is very high. Health officials have urged anyone with breathing disorders to stay indoors.

Two people have died in the fires, which have devastated thousands of hectares of land since beginning on Wednesday.