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Australian Fires Close in on Sydney - 2002-01-01

Bush fires raging across the Australian state of New South Wales have moved closer to Sydney, with fresh outbreaks within 15 kilometers of the city center. Firefighters say strong winds are driving the blaze toward residential areas.

Sydney is facing a new emergency as this new fire front heads toward residential areas about 15 kilometers north of downtown.

Senior fire officers say conditions could not be worse and say there seems to be no end to the hot, dry, windy weather driving the fires.

Thousands of emergency workers and several fire-fighting aircraft have been sent to the area. They are confronted by gusting, dry winds and late afternoon temperatures still well above 30 degrees.

State Fire Commissioner Phil Koperberg says New Year's Day will be a critical time in the fight against the fires.

People in the area to the north of Sydney are taking precautions such as hosing down their roofs.

"I can still see smoke burning at the National Park behind our place here and it seems pretty bad," said one resident who was too busy to give her name.

"My husband just told me before he could see flames burning from upstairs. We live in a two-story house. It seems under control. There are lots of helicopters going around, lots of smoke burning your eyes, you know, can't breath type thing. Other than that it seems all right."

Most roads and major highways around the South Turramurra and North Epping districts of Sydney have been closed. Heavy smoke makes some roads unsafe to drive. The police say emergency crews are hindered by hundreds of sightseers flocking to the area. Police warn sightseers to stay away.

There are continued problems to the south of Sydney too, with fires threatening the township of Mittagong. Several hundred residents moved to shelter at Mittagong after fires fanned by erratic winds forced the evacuation of half the community.

On the eighth day of Sydney's bush fires, at least 150 homes have been destroyed and more than 300,000 hectares of forest burned. There have been no deaths, however.