Authorities in Australia say more heavy rain in fire-ravaged parts of the eastern state of New South Wales has brought the Christmas wildfire emergency to an end. The economic cost of the fires that ringed the country's biggest city, Sydney, for more than three weeks, is estimated at $88 million.

The damage bill of $88 million covers insurance claims, fire fighting costs and losses to businesses, especially in the tourism sector, which was particularly hard hit by the fires.

These were the fiercest fires ever seen in Australia. More than 120 homes were destroyed along with 600,000 hectares of bush land, including vast swathes of world-heritage national park.

The bush fire crisis, which began on Christmas Day, is officially over and thousands of volunteer firefighters are returning home to heroes' welcomes. Thousands turned out for a parade to honor the firefighters in the southern city of Melbourne on Wednesday. The governor of New South Wales, Bob Carr, says the state owes the volunteers its gratitude. "The remarkable thing is to come through these serious fires without loss of life. It reflects the quality of their training, the quality of their equipment, the quality of their leadership...we can all breathe easier getting through the end of this fire crisis without anyone ending up as a casualty in a burns ward," Mr. Carr said.

Employers' groups in Australia have expressed concern about the money they spent on the wages of the volunteer emergency workers, who were away from their jobs for up to three weeks. The wages alone could top $5 million, and lost production could be twice that figure.

At their peak, 100 fires surrounded Sydney, threatening outer suburbs, bushland communities and holiday towns. The fires cast a choking blanket of smoke across the city, raining ash on its beaches.

There has been no respite for many emergency crews in northern New South Wales. After fighting the fires, they are back on the job, this time helping with disaster relief after floods hit near the town of Tweed Heads. Several campgrounds were evacuated along with a hospital as the waters began to rise.

The Tweed Heads region to the north of Sydney has been declared a natural disaster area following a violent storm this week, which cut power to 25,000 homes.

On the country's western coast, firefighters are in action, and have contained several bush fires started by lightening strikes. The country is at the peak of its long, dry summer, when wild fires are a frequent hazard.