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Australian Brush Fires Called Worst Ever - 2002-01-05

Officials are describing the bushfires raging for a 13th day in the eastern Australian state of New South Wales as the country's worst ever. Firefighters are preparing for more hostile weather conditions in the next 24 hours. About 80 wild fires are still burning around Sydney, with the worst affected areas in the Blue Mountains to the west and coastal communities to the south.

This is day 13 of the bushfire crisis, and authorities here in New South Wales are prepared for what they call a long-term campaign. The state's emergency services minister, Bob Debus, says the fires are worse than those that ravaged the region eight years ago.

So far, the fires have destroyed more than 170 homes and 500,000 hectares of forest and farmland.

Thousands of people have been forced from their homes, as dozens of communities on the front line are evacuated. Many others remain on alert.

The weather forecast for Sunday and Monday is not expected to bring relief. There is no rain in sight, and a dangerous cocktail of hot, dry winds and high temperatures are expected again to test the resolve of the emergency crews.

Teams from South Australia, Queensland and Victoria, who were due to leave, have decided to extend their tour of duty. One firefighter has been airlifted from the front-line to a hospital, suffering burns to his hands, legs and feet.

The fire front stretches for two-thousand kilometers. In the Blue Mountains, 500 firefighters worked through the night to protect the townships of Hazelbrook and Lawson. More buffer zones have been carved out of the bushland to strengthen containment lines.

The fires raging to Sydney's south still threaten many communities, and are spreading inland to inaccessible terrain.

Wildlife experts say the bush fires are destroying native Australian animals, such as koalas. Much of their natural habitat has been reduced to ashes, and officials say thousands of the animals have probably been killed or injured. Those that survive could face starvation. The fires have decimated many eucalyptus forests, the koalas' principle food source.