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Fires Force More Evacuations Around Sydney - 2002-01-07

Flames up to 10 meters high have forced the evacuation of more communities to the south of Sydney, in the eastern Australian state of New South Wales. The fires are being fanned by strong hot winds gusting up to 65 kilometers an hour. However, torrential rain has fallen in some parts of the state, bringing the first sign of relief in more than two weeks.

Torrential rain fell Monday around Sydney for the first time in 18 days, but many fires still burn to the north, south and west of Australia's biggest city.

The downpours dumped an average of 20 millimeters on many fire-stricken parts of New South Wales. More than 30 millimeters fell on the Blue Mountains National Park, one of the areas hardest hit by the bush fires.

In the Hawkesbury region, to the northwest of Sydney, rains have almost extinguished the fire front.

Alana Norman from the local fire service said the whole community is overjoyed that the rains have finally come. "I would have to say we are feeling very happy up here at the moment," she said. "We're grateful we received anywhere from 20 to 30 millimeters overnight, and I can tell you, there were some big grins on the faces of people at Bowen Mountain, and, certainly some of our crews, who saw that rain as a lovely little break for them."

Despite the rain, fire-fighting reinforcements continue to arrive in eastern Australia.

Two more giant American helicopters have touched down in Sydney to join the aerial bombardment of the bush fires. The airborne tankers can drop 9,000 liters of water at one time.

The rain has had little impact elsewhere around Sydney. Fires still burned out of control near the township of Shoalhaven. More than 700 residents were ordered to leave after flames advanced within a kilometer of homes.

A new, hostile weather front is forecast for New South Wales in the next 24 hours. Winds are expected to reach 60 kilometers an hour, and temperatures into the high 30s (Celsius).

New South Wales Emergency Services Minister Bob Debus has called the fire crisis the worst ever in Australia, with the latest damage estimates at $35 million.