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Bush Fires*

No relief in sight for fire-scarred Sydney

January 3, 2002 Posted: 11:53 PM EST (0453 GMT)

Authorities say the fires will still be burning well into next week

By Grant Holloway


SYDNEY, Australia (CNN) -- Bush fires are continuing to force thousands of people to evacuate their homes to the west and south of Sydney as dry weather and erratic winds prolong the crisis.

Twelve days after the first blazes began, more than 80 fires still burn across New South Wales -- Australia's most populous state -- with little respite on the horizon.

Fire officials are warning predictions of low humidity, high temperatures and gusty winds over the weekend and into next week will once again stretch fire fighting resources to the limit.

While fires in Sydney's northern suburbs -- which threatened to spread almost to the center of the city earlier this week -- have been contained, infernos are still raging in the Blue Mountains about 55 kilometers (35 miles) to the west.

Popular vacation towns on the coastal areas south of Sydney are also engulfed in fire, as is the Hawkesbury region to the north west.

Fire official John Winter told Australian television two giant fires licking the outskirts of Sydney posed the greatest threat.

"It's certainly going to be scary as the fire works its way up (the mountains)," Winter said.

The scale of the destruction so far is hard to comprehend.

More than half a million hectares (1.2 million acres) of bushland has been destroyed by a firefront estimated at 2,000 kilometers (1,400 miles), despite the efforts of 20,000 fire fighting volunteers and 60 water-bombing aircraft.

At any one time, there are about 8,000 firefighters on the ground focused almost entirely on saving lives and property.

Sydney, a city of 4 million people, is the commercial capital of Australia. It is renowned not only for its picturesque harbor, but also the extensive native bush parklands that punctuate the city's suburbs and fringe districts.

While about 170 homes have been destroyed, the number saved is in the tens of thousands, and remarkably no lives have been lost.

Fire authorities predict the blazes will continue well into next week, however their task will be made a little easier on Monday with the arrival of two more giant water-bombing helicopters from the United States.

Two more Erikson Air-Crane Helitankers will join the one already operating in NSW, which has been affectionately nicknamed 'Elvis' by Sydneysiders because it originally hails from Memphis, Tennessee.

The ability of the giant chopper to quickly collect and deliver a 9,000 liter payload of water to firefronts has saved thousands of properties, and most likely lives.

Sydney's Daily Telegraph newspaper reports Friday that 14 volunteer firecrew were rescued by 'Elvis' minutes after they became suddenly trapped by a Blue Mountains firestorm.

Australia's dry summers and vast tracts of combustible eucalyptus forest make bush fires a frequent event, but the expansion of city suburbs into native bush areas over the past few decades has increased the damaging impact of the infernos.

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