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Weather Fuels Australian Bush Fires - 2002-01-02

Soaring temperatures and strong, dry winds have made day 10 of Sydney's bush fire crisis the most perilous yet for Australian emergency services. More than 80 fires continue to rage across New South Wales.

Firefighters have just barely contained fires threatening homes in Sydney's northwestern suburbs less than 15 kilometers from the city center. They worked through the night to create buffer zones to stop the flames from reaching residential areas.

Investigators believe the latest outbreak north of the city was started deliberately. A special police unit cracking down on suspected arsonists has so far arrested 14 youths and six adults.

Emergency crews have faced blowtorch conditions - dry winds and high temperatures, along with low humidity. It appears there will be no break in the weather for at least three days and Sydney already is at its driest in years.

The New South Wales state fire commissioner Phil Koperburg says the weather could not be more dangerous.

"It's about as bad a picture as you could possibly conjure up," he said. "We have somewhere in the order of 2,000 kilometers of fire perimeters to deal with on a day that is not conducive to doing anything else than hopping into a swimming pool somewhere. The firefighters are feeling the strain."

New fires are still breaking out in the state, challenging the exhausted emergency crews.

To Sydney's north, the South Turramurra and North Epping districts are still under threat. Many people have fled their communities.

Simon Atkins' home is one of hundreds threatened by the flames. He says residents have helped each other prepare for such an emergency.

"The important bit that we've done over the last six months was prepare all the properties so that when the fire did come that it was protected as it could be and that we were ready for the fire brigade and the volunteer fire service," he explained.

There are problems to the west and south of Australia's biggest city, too. Townships in the Blue Mountains evacuated as fires roared out of control near Kurrajong Heights. Residents who remain have been told they could be forced to leave later.

The fires around Sydney are cutting into the resources available to fight a blaze heading toward the nation's capital, Canberra.

More reinforcements from the southern states of Victoria and Tasmania have been called up to join the firefighting effort in New South Wales.