Fires ring Australia's largest city, forcing evacuations

Friday, December 6, 2002

SYDNEY, Australia -- The worst bush fires in a generation raged out of control around Sydney on Friday, forcing hundreds of people to flee their homes as firefighters struggled to contain the towering flames.

Overnight, strong, hot winds fanned more than 60 fires around Australia's largest city, including one in a park just six miles from downtown. Overnight rain in some areas and a change in wind direction failed to extinguish the flames.

An intense blaze sprang up in the Blue Mountains, 55 miles west of Sydney, late Thursday, destroying one home and forcing hundreds of evacuations.

And another spread into a national park that leads through rugged and inaccessible bush toward some of Sydney's most affluent northern beachside suburbs.

"That has caused some significant problems because now we are going to have to chance down into the bush areas to try and contain that fire," fire service spokesman John Winter told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.

Despite the infernos, only three homes were destroyed Thursday, as 3,000 firefighters beat back the flames with the help of water-bombing aircraft and homeowners armed with hoses, buckets and wet towels.

Fire service spokesman John Winter said 18 homes had been razed since the latest round of fires erupted Wednesday afternoon.

A 73-year-old man died of a heart attack as he tried to herd horses away from a fast-advancing wall of flames, emergency services said. He was the only reported casualty.

"The immediate environs of Sydney have probably not faced a threat like this for 20 to 30 years," said New South Wales state Rural Fire Service Commissioner Phil Koperberg. "We're going to be in trouble in New South Wales until it rains."

Light rain fell Thursday night in southern Sydney, but had little impact on fires there.

Meanwhile, new blazes broke out to the west and north of the city and quickly raced out of control in winds gusting up to 50 mph. The fires closed major highways into Sydney, stranding hundreds of evening commuters who were forced to take shelter.

Firefighters have been warning for months that Sydney faced a devastating bush fire season over the hot Southern Hemisphere summer. The city and much of New South Wales state has been in the grip of a devastating drought for months.

But some of the blazes were caused by arson.

Police said they arrested an 18-year-old student and charged him with starting one of the fires on Wednesday.

Others are believed to have been started by people tossing cigarette butts out of car windows -- an offense officials said could draw a 14-year prison sentence.

Bob Crowley, who has lived in Dural, northwest Sydney, for 15 years, watched in horror and amazement as flames swept over his home but left it virtually unscathed.

"All of a sudden the wind blew a big fire storm over the top. Everyone was running for their lives. We are just lucky the wind changed and saved us," he said. "My skin was burning as I was running. I have never been scared in my life like that."

Prime Minister John Howard offered the nation's defense forces to help battle the blazes, as a pall of gray smoke drifted over downtown Sydney, a sprawling city of 4 million.

Fire commissioner Koperberg said he would draft firefighters from other states to relieve their exhausted colleagues, whose heroism he praised. "The saves have been quite incredible," he said. The men and women on the ground today have performed miraculously."

About 200 firefighters from other states arrived in Sydney early Friday to help battle the flames.

Sandra Johansen said she, her husband and a friend were trapped in their home while five firefighters who'd pulled up to help them were prevented from leaving their truck by a ring of flames.

All were saved by two more firefighters.

"They are our guardian angels -- they saved all of our lives," Johansen said on television Thursday as she stood in front of the smoldering remains of her home.

Viewers also saw Christine Lamont from the southern Sydney suburb of Sandy Point watch her home of 28 years go up in flames.

"Nothing at all, I have got nothing," she said.

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