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Pilot dies after plane crashes while fighting Australian bush fires

By Jethro Mullen, CNN
October 24, 2013 -- Updated 0700 GMT (1500 HKT)
New South Wales Rural Fire Service crew members fight a fire near Mount Wilson in the Blue Mountains of Australia on Thursday, October 24. Wildfires threatened the western suburbs of Sydney on Wednesday as high winds and temperatures created at least a dozen new fires that were blazing across a 1,000-mile stretch of New South Wales. New South Wales Rural Fire Service crew members fight a fire near Mount Wilson in the Blue Mountains of Australia on Thursday, October 24. Wildfires threatened the western suburbs of Sydney on Wednesday as high winds and temperatures created at least a dozen new fires that were blazing across a 1,000-mile stretch of New South Wales.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The water-bombing plane crashed south of Sydney, authorities said
  • "There's a family suffering today because their dad hasn't come home," a fire official says
  • More than 60 wildfires still rage in New South Wales; over 20 are not contained
  • But the overall threat is lower than Wednesday when conditions were most severe

Are you affected by the fires? Send us your pictures and experiences but please stay safe

(CNN) -- A pilot died Thursday after his plane crashed in eastern Australia during efforts to fight vast bush fires that have threatened the suburbs of Sydney in recent days.

The water-bombing plane went down in a remote area more than 100 kilometers (60 miles) south of Sydney, said authorities in New South Wales, the Australian state where fires have ravaged tens of thousands of hectares of land and destroyed more than 200 homes.

Rescue crews found the body of the 43-year-old pilot after reaching the crash site in rugged terrain. He was the only person on board the plane and his family has been notified, police said.

"We're acutely aware there's a family suffering today because their dad hasn't come home," said Shane Fitzsimmons, the commissioner of New South Wales Rural Fire Service.

He said the crash started a new fire in the area that other firefighting aircraft are now tackling.

Many fires still not contained

More than 60 blazes continued to rage in the region, over 20 of them out of control, fire service spokeswoman Natalie Sanders said Thursday.

The fire service has issued emergency warnings for two of the fires in the hard hit Blue Mountains region west of Sydney, telling residents to leave the area of find shelter, she said.

But the overall threat has decreased from Wednesday, when more than 1,500 firefighters battled for hours against blazes propelled by powerful gusts of wind.

The weather is cooler Thursday, Sanders said, and winds are gusting up to 75 kilometers per hour (about 45 mph) -- still strong, but less severe than the 85-100 kph gusts on Wednesday.

"The broader risk to a more larger population has certainly eased," Fitzsimmons said Wednesday.

He warned, though, that there were "many hours of firefighting still to come, many hours of concern for those who are living in the fire affected areas."

Defense exercise blamed

The threat was indicated by the scale of one of the two most alarming bush fires in the Blue Mountains. Known as the State Mine fire, the blaze has engulfed more than 125,000 hectares (300,000 acres) of land and has a perimeter of more than 300 kilometers, Sanders said.

And the cause of that fire has stirred anger among local residents.

The fire service said Wednesday that the blaze was the result of live ordnance exercises on an army range in the State Mine area. The flames have destroyed 10 buildings and homes in the area since October 16.

The Australian Department of Defense issued a statement acknowledging defense personnel were conducting an explosive training activity in the same area on the day the fire started. The department is conducting its own investigation into the military exercise.

The scores of fires have damaged huge areas in the past week, but human casualties have been limited.

Before the pilot's death on Thursday, the only fatality was a 63-year-old man who died of a suspected heart attack on October 18 while defending his home against a blaze on the New South Wales Central Coast.

Officials have underlined the severity and the unusual timing of the fires, which have struck during a very dry spring in the Southern hemisphere.

"Never before have we seen the extent of damage and destruction and wide-scale fire activity at this time of the year," Fitzsimmons said Wednesday.

CNN's Aliza Kassim, Kevin Voigt, Laura Smith-Spark, Marcy Heinz, Robyn Curnow and Larry Register contributed to this report.

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