Firefighters battling some of the most destructive wildfires to ever strike Australia’s most populous state were bracing Saturday for worsening conditions, with higher temperatures and winds expected to intensify the danger in the coming days.
In the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, one of the worst-hit regions in fire-ravaged New South Wales state, 193 homes have been destroyed and another 109 damaged by the fire storm that peaked Thursday, the Rural Fire Service said.
The damage toll announced Saturday was more than double the count from the previous day and was expected to continue to rise as assessment teams and police move deeper into the destruction zone in search of survivors and victims. Homes have been reported destroyed in other regions, but numbers were not yet available.
With 68 fires still burning – 22 of them out of control – and worsening weather conditions forecast through Thursday, authorities were expecting the worst.
“We could see some very, very dire conditions ranging right across the Blue Mountains,” Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons told Nine Network television.
“The reason we are particularly concerned is that we went into last Thursday with not too much fire. We’re going into some bad weather now with lots of fire and literally 500 kilometers (310 miles) of fire edge that needs to be dealt with, and that will present serious issues should we see that hot, dry, windy weather which is likely toward the middle of the week,” he said.
A 63-year-old man died of a heart attack Thursday while protecting his home from fire at Lake Munmorah, north of Sydney, and at least five people – including three firefighters – have been treated in hospitals for burns and smoke inhalation, officials said.
Police are investigating allegations that two girls aged 12 and 13 tried to light a fire in a woodland on Sydney’s western fringe on Friday. Firefighters were able to extinguish a small fire in that area without damage to property.
Police said the girls were questioned and then released. No charges were filed, but an investigation was continuing.
Arson investigators are examining the origins of several of more than 100 fires that have threatened towns surrounding Sydney in recent days.
The wildfires have been extraordinarily intense and extraordinarily early in an annual fire season that peaks during the southern hemisphere summer, which begins in December.
Around 1,500 firefighters have been back burning to contain blazes since winds and temperatures became milder on Friday. Several roads in fire-affected areas north, west and south of Sydney have been closed.
Wildfires are common in Australia, though they don’t tend to pop up in large numbers until the summer. This year’s unusually dry winter and hotter than average spring have led to perfect fire conditions.
In February 2009, wildfires killed 173 people and destroyed more than 2,000 homes in Victoria state.
(Associated Press writer Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Australia, contributed to this report.)
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