Firefighters still struggling with up to 70 bush fires


Firefighters in New South Wales were struggling with as many as 70 bush fires across the state last night, with Sydney blanketed in thick smoke for the fifth consecutive day. Arsonists gave the authorities a fresh headache after at least six major fires were started deliberately yesterday.

The smell of burning lay in the air all day with light breezes resulting in the smoke sitting over the city, unable to move out to sea, reducing visibility in some places to less than 50 metres.

Most of Sydney's beaches were deserted during the weekend, traditionally one of their busiest times of the year. At least eight flights into Sydney airport were diverted, while smoke filled the city's underground rail stations.

And Syndeysiders are now preparing for conditions to worsen today and into tomorrow, when temperatures are expected to move above 40 degrees and winds to gust at up to 60 k.p.h.

Rural Fire Service spokesman Mr John Winter said last night that, although firefighters were relieved the hot and windy conditions forecast for yesterday did not materialise, there was also an element of frustration. "The weather has not been overly conducive to back-burning, meaning that you would only use it as a last resort for property defence."

So far about 200 homes have been destroyed. Insurance companies are expecting claims of at least Aus$70 million (€40 million) in respect of lost property and livestock. But that bill could climb, as it is not yet known how much national park land has been destroyed.

Police efforts to track down those arsonists believed to have started at least one-third of the 100 fires that have burned at some stage since Christmas Day are beginning to pay dividends. Two youths are to be prosecuted, while a 22-year-old man remains in custody.