— Firefighters in eastern Australia are racing to contain huge outbreaks that officials fear could merge to create a “mega blaze” west of Sydney. Authorities in New South Wales have said that the region is facing an “unparalleled" emergency.
More than 50 fires continue to burn; about a dozen are out of control, and officials say three particularly large fires could join to form one monstrous wall of flame. Suburbs on the edge of Sydney could then be threatened by outbreaks that are tearing through parts of the Blue Mountains.
More than 200 homes have been destroyed so far and many more have been damaged in the worst fire disaster in New South Wales in nearly 50 years.
A state of emergency has been declared, giving officials power to order people from their homes.
Mike Gallacher, the New South Wales Minister for Emergency Services, said the measures will help the firefighting effort.
“It will primarily be… police doing the forced evacuations if we need to go down that path. But [we will] also [be] working with the paid professionals in terms of making decisions within dealing with the fire threat. For example, if it's apparent that they need to cut off electricity or cut off gas utilities to an area, they've got the power to do that. They've got the power to pull down buildings and demolish buildings if they have to. They are extraordinary powers,” said Gallacher.
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Officials are playing down earlier suggestions that all communities in the Blue Mountains, where 76,000 people live, could be evacuated. Instead, warnings will be issued to communities directly at risk.
Helicopters dropping water are supporting 2,000 firefighters, but their efforts are at the mercy of the weather.
Strong winds are expected to return later in the week, heaping more pressure on exhausted emergency crews and anxious residents.
What firefighters fear is a repeat of the hot temperatures, tinder dry conditions and gusty winds that fuelled outbreaks at the end of last week.
In February 2009, 173 people were killed in bushfires that tore through parts of Victoria state in Australia's worst natural disaster.