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Australian firefighters on alert for new flare-ups

Lithgow fires
Fighting fires in Lithgow   
December 4, 1997
Web posted at: 9:22 a.m. EST (1422 GMT)

SYDNEY, Australia (CNN) -- Australian firefighters battling huge bush fires in the southeast of the country took advantage Thursday of cooler temperatures to build more firebreaks near some of the more than 100 fires still burning out of control.

But up to 10,000 firefighters, including 6,000 already fighting fires, were put on alert ahead of an expected return to high temperatures and strong winds Friday or Saturday, New South Wales Rural Fire Service (RFS) Commissioner Phil Koperberg said.

Australian fires
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"We'll move into tomorrow on a worst-case scenario rather than a best-case scenario," Koperberg told a news conference.

'Vast fire ... huge efforts'

Officials said 16 aircraft were being used in the firefighting effort, including eight firebombing aircraft and three helicopters. Local media reported that the craft were dropping water and fire retardants over burning areas in a constant convoy.

A L S O :

Detailed map of southeastern Australia

"This is a vast fire and a huge effort required to contain it," said New South Wales Premier Bob Carr.

"It's that combination of high winds, high temperatures and low humidity that we are all dreading in this region as Saturday approaches," Carr told reporters after touring the area. "So let's all pray for a break in the weather."

Firefighters are battling 173 bush fires across a wide area of the state of New South Wales. About 60 of the fires are out of control and some have been burning for eight days after they were started by lightning strikes last week, Koperberg said.

Lives, homes lost to blazes

Charred car
A charred car is covered in bricks in Menai   

Two volunteer firefighters were killed at Lithgow, 100 km (62 miles) northwest of Sydney, as more than 400 fires flared across the state on Tuesday. Nearly 40 homes have been destroyed and over 400,000 hectares (1 million acres) of land have been laid waste by the fires.

In the Sydney suburb of Menai, where 11 homes were destroyed and as many as 30 damaged, families picked through the rubble of their destroyed houses Thursday, trying to clean up charred home sites and looking for any personal items they might be able to salvage.

"You've only got to take one look around here and you see how bad it can be," one firefighter said as his team knocked over fire-consumed homes.

Return to high temperatures expected

Menai homes
Firefighters knock down walls when flames reach the suburbs of Sydney   

Cooler weather on Wednesday and Thursday helped firefighters bring many blazes under control and build firebreaks in anticipation of a return to prime bush fire conditions.

While temperatures in Sydney dipped to 23 degrees Celsius (73 degrees Fahrenheit) in Sydney and 31 C (88 F) in the northwest on Thursday, meteorologists have forecast temperatures of up to 40 C (104 F) and strong winds on Friday or Saturday.

Large fires were burning in inaccessible woodland in the Hawkesbury River and Hunter Valley regions between 40 km and 150 km (25 to 95 miles) north of Sydney. Fires that reached out of nearby bushland into Menai on Tuesday were also being brought under control, the RFS said.

There were still several fires around Lithgow and firefighters were attempting to stop them from joining up with other fires in the Blue Mountains on the far western outskirts of Sydney, RFS officials said.

The Insurance Council of Australia said on Wednesday that the fires at Menai had caused up to $10 million (U.S. $6.7 million) in damage to homes in the area.

Australia is only four days into its southern hemisphere summer and Koperberg has described conditions as more erratic than those in January 1994, when fires encircled Sydney, killing four people and destroying more than 100 homes.

Meteorologists said on Wednesday the El Niño weather pattern would increase the risk of bush fires over the next few months and would likely delay the start of the monsoon over tropical northern Australia.

Reuters contributed to this report.


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