January 1, 2006

Australian bushfires destroy homes

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Raging bushfires destroyed several homes
and threatened others north of Sydney on Sunday as scorching
temperatures and hot, dry winds fanned fires across
southeastern Australia.

Temperatures reached up to 44 degrees Celsius (111 F) in
some areas, and firefighters were battling scores of blazes,
although authorities said cooler weather and rain were bringing
relief to South Australia and parts of Victoria.

In New South Wales, Australia's most populous state,
residents were evacuated from two small communities near
Gosford, about 60 km (37 miles) north of Sydney, where several
homes and some vehicles were destroyed by flames more than 20
meters (65 ft) high.

"Black smoke covering the sun, just scorching hot, 44
degrees. It's burning up here," Mitchell, a local resident told
Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.

Major roads leading north from Sydney, Australia's biggest
city, were closed. Holidaymakers were stranded and serious
fires and evacuations were reported in several other areas of
the state, but there were no reports of injuries.

Thousands of firefighters had been put on high alert before
the extreme weather conditions. A ban on lighting fires in the
open is in effect across New South Wales, much of Victoria and
South Australia until midnight on Sunday.

"The fires are widespread and breaking out right across the
state," said New South Wales Rural Fire Service spokesperson
Rebel Talbert.

Cooler conditions were expected by late evening, but this
could bring fresh problems, with wind gusts of up to 80 km per
hour making fire behavior erratic, she said.

In western Victoria, where a large bushfire destroyed five
homes near Stawell late on Saturday, rain brought relief to
firefighters as they fought to contain a blaze that has burned
about 9,000 hectares (22,000 acres) of scrub and farmland.

Australia is scarred by bushfires every summer and every
few years bushfires blaze into major cities which have fingers
of bushland weaving through suburbs.

In January 2004, the deadliest bushfires in 22 years killed
nine people and injured dozens in South Australia. The blazes
were the worst since Ash Wednesday bushfires claimed 75 lives
in South Australia and Victoria in 1983.

In 2003, bushfires destroyed a slice of Australia nearly
three times the size of Britain, fueled by one of the worst
droughts in a century. Four people were killed and 530 homes
destroyed when fire swept through the capital, Canberra, that

In 2002 and 1994, devastating bushfires destroyed scores of
homes in Sydney.