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Australia: Thousands Flee Giant Firestorm - 2002-01-03

At least 7,000 people have been forced to flee a giant firestorm threatening coastal communities to the south of Australia's biggest city, Sydney. Evacuations continue Thursday along the front line in the second week of the crisis. More than 100 bush fires are still raging out of control near Sydney and are being fanned by hot, dry winds.

Flames up to thirty metres high have confronted fire fighters at the holiday resort of Sussex Inlet, about 190 kilometers south of Sydney. Thousands of residents and vacationers were ordered to leave. Many spent the night on local beaches as the flames moved closer. Others braved choking smoke and fast-moving fires to drive out of the town. As many as 20 homes have been destroyed.

Once again, the authorities here in the eastern state of New South Wales believe these fires were started deliberately. The police have discovered the remains of what might have been two homemade bombs used by arsonists to set tinder-dry forests alight. Some residents report hearing an explosion just before the fire broke out.

Police have arrested 21 arson suspects since the crisis began on Christmas Day. They include 14 juveniles, aged between nine and 16 years, and are described as troublemakers bored during current summer school vacations.

Fires now threaten another nearby holiday retreat at Jervis Bay, where more evacuations are taking place. There have also been mass evacuations in the Hawkesbury region, northwest of Sydney.

On day 11 of Australia's Christmas bushfire crisis, 20,000 emergency workers from all states and territories have joined local forces battling to save homes, and now New Zealand has offered help. It's an operation the Premier of New South Wales Bob Carr has likened to a "war".

The crews are working in the worst possible conditions. Westerly winds gusting in from Australia's arid Outback are fanning the flames and scattering red hot embers to start new spot fires.

There have been no casualties but the fires have blackened more than 740,000 acres of forest and farmland. Many of fire-stricken areas were burned by similar outbreaks in 1994, when four people were killed and almost 200 homes destroyed.