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Cooler Conditions May Aid Australian Firefighters - 2002-12-09

Australian firefighters are hopeful that cooler conditions will reduce the threat of bushfires that have ravaged the Sydney suburbs for nearly a week. The most serious fire is now in the Blue Mountains, 90 kilometers west of Sydney.

About 80 fires continue to rage across the eastern state of New South Wales, and smoke still blankets Sydney, Australia's most populous city. But emergency workers say they are hopeful that cooler, more humid conditions will make firefighting easier.

Strong winds have also died, but not before fanning fires that destroyed about 50 homes.

Rural Fire Service Chief Phil Koperberg says although conditions have eased, there is still a lot of work ahead for fire crews. "The firefighters will be out there for many, many days yet, performing the arduous, dirty labor, intensive task of mopping up," he says. "And just as critical in terms of the totality of fire management, is that that job is done effectively, otherwise we'll have outbreaks again as soon as the sun shines."

In the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, efforts continue to stop a fire that could threaten 20 other homes and an historic hotel if conditions worsen. Helicopters are continuing to water-bomb the flames.

Elsewhere, firefighters have managed to contain fires burning in Sydney's northwest, and in the south, crews have begun mopping up.

But Rural Fire Service officer John Winter says that will not mean a definitive end to the crisis, and authorities will keep firefighters and equipment in the field for some time yet. "We will not slacken that off until such time as we have taken best advantage of the current conditions," he says. "This is not an opportunity for us to significantly scale back things."

It is believed arsonists or careless smokers are responsible for many of the fires, which first flared up last Wednesday, amid hot, dry and windy weather.

A drought affecting 90% of the country has already made this year's bushfire season one of the worst in decades, barely two weeks after the start of the Australian summer.