- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 2, 2002

SYDNEY, Australia Firefighters filled buckets from suburban swimming pools and helicopters dumped water as 60-foot flames spewing clouds of thick, black smoke raced to within 11 miles of downtown Sydney yesterday.

The flames were the closest to the heart of Australia's largest city since the bush fires in New South Wales state began Christmas Eve, but authorities said the downtown area was not in danger.

In the suburbs, where 150 homes have burned, firefighters worked yesterday to save houses from fires just yards away. Outback winds and temperatures above 100 degrees nourished what officials called an unprecedented day of blazes.

"The smoke was blinding," said Claire Marnane, who lives in one of the threatened Sydney suburbs. "We could hear the sap from inside trees exploding, it was so hot."

By last night, scores of blazes were burning out of control, many just around Sydney, home to 4 million people.

Flames jumped firebreaks and containment lines that had been set up by thousands of mainly volunteer firefighters over the weekend.

The bush fire heading toward the city appeared to have been lighted deliberately, police said, like more than half of the 100 other fires that have plagued the state.

Eight persons have been arrested as suspected arsonists and face a maximum of 14 years in prison if convicted.

As night fell, the winds died, allowing firefighters to regroup. But weather forecasters are predicting hot, dry conditions for days, and New South Wales state Premier Bob Carr said the fight had reached a critical stage.

"The next 24 hours won't give us any letup," said John Winter of the New South Wales Rural Fire Service. "We are really here for the long haul."

No casualties have been reported from the blazes, dubbed the "black Christmas" fires. In addition to the 150 destroyed homes, the fires have blackened 741,000 acres of forest and farmland.

Officials said fire crews saved all 250 homes that had been threatened in Sydney, but that the power and speed of the inferno surprised them.

"This fire is burning quite ferociously," said state fire chief Phil Koperberg. "The situation remains grave at best."

More than 300 firefighters in yellow jackets braved black smoke and fought flames from back yards and gardens in the suburbs of Pennant Hills, North Epping and South Turramurra.

Residents were ordered to stay indoors. Officials said conditions were too dangerous for mass evacuations. Some homeowners sprayed their homes with garden hoses.

Separately, firefighters extinguished a large forest fire on the southern outskirts of Canberra, the national capital, 155 miles to the southwest of Sydney.

About 30 miles northwest of here, fires forced dozens of residents from homes in the Blue Mountains, as well as from homes in bushland along the Hawkesbury River, 25 miles to the north. Scores of people also were evacuated from Sussex Inlet, 60 miles south.

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