SYDNEY Australian firefighters worked desperately on Tuesday to contain massive wildfires burning in mountains west of Sydney, but with forecasts of high winds and dangerously hot weather, authorities fear more houses and lives will be lost.
More than 200 homes have been destroyed in New South Wales (NSW) state since Thursday, when fires tore through scattered communities on Sydney's outskirts, razing entire streets. One man died after suffering a heart attack trying to protect his home.
"The forecast and scenario for tomorrow is about as bad as it gets. On days like tomorrow there is a very real potential for more loss of homes and loss of life," said New South Wales Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons.
Sixty fires were burning on Tuesday, with the largest and most dangerous in the Blue Mountains around 100 km (6 miles) west of Sydney.
The fires are expected to flare on Wednesday with the return of temperatures in the mid-30 degree Celsius (high-80 degree Fahrenheit) range and winds gusting up to 100 kph (62 mph).
Sydney and its surrounding regions have been given an "extreme fire danger rating" for Wednesday. Fitzsimmons urged everyone who does not need to be in the Blue Mountains to be out of the area by lunchtime.
Authorities ordered schools in the Blue Mountains to be closed on Wednesday and evacuated nursing homes in the area.
"Tomorrow is going to be the worst of the fire weather days. Whatever results from the run of these fires we will seek to deal with and deal with the absolute focus of life preservation and the saving of as much property as we can."
But Fitzsimmons told mountain residents not to expect a fire truck to save their home as they may not be able to reach everyone in time.
The early season fires have burned through more than 120,000 hectares (300,000 acres) and have a perimeter of some 1,600 km (990 miles). Air pollution in parts of Sydney spiked on Tuesday to dangerously high levels as smoke and ash blanketed the city.
The insurance council of Australia said claims of more than A$93 million ($90 million) were expected to grow and the NSW government has declared a state of emergency enabling it to order evacuations.
Thousands of firefighters, including some from New Zealand and from other Australian states, had joined the battle, using hundreds of fire engines and 90 aircraft.
With steep hills carpeted by eucalyptus forests and dotted with small communities, the Blue Mountains are a popular day trip from Sydney, but its rugged and often inaccessible terrain can become a fire nightmare during the long, hot Southern Hemisphere summer.
Police have arrested several children suspected of starting a number of different fires. Other fires were sparked by power lines arcing in strong winds, according to the fire service.
With dry weather and a massive land area, Australia is particularly prone to bushfires. In 2009, the "Black Saturday" wildfires in Victoria state killed 173 people and caused $4.4 billion worth of damage.
Record hot and dry weather across the continent and an early start to the fire season have rekindled arguments on mankind's impact on climate and what can be done to mitigate it.
($1 = A$1.03)
(Editing by Michael Perry)