Tuesday, 25 December, 2001


Hundreds of people evacuate towns and resorts as thousands of firefighters battle bush fires in the eastern Australian state of New South Wales.

The sun is but a faint red disc in Sydney's sky

A plane trying to land at Sydney International Airport 
is engulfed by smoke

A man uses a garden hose to wet a roof to prevent 
a nearby blaze from setting fire to a house

A helicopter surveys a bush fire in the Blue Mountains 
on the western outskirts of Sydney

Firefighters enveloped in smoke battle a fire 
near Dapto, south of Sydney

Some of the fires were thought to have been started deliberately

High winds and soaring temperatures are stoking the fires


Tuesday, 25 December, 2001, 23:45 GMT

Firefighters expect to spend days battling the blazes

Hundreds of people have evacuated towns, holiday resorts and national 
parks in Australia while thousands more prepare to leave, as bush fires 
rage in the eastern state of New South Wales.

Some of the fires have been burning on the outskirts of Sydney, Australia's biggest city.

The weather conditions and their speed is unprecedented

Firefighters' spokesman Cameron Wade

A pall of smoke is hanging over the city as a strong wind drives the fires onwards. At least 80 homes have been engulfed in flames, with hundreds more under threat.

Firefighters are unlikely to get any help from the weather soon, with hot, dry, strong winds forecast for the next several days.

The state government has declared disaster areas in several regions, including the western and southern outskirts of Sydney.

New South Wales emergencies minister Bob Debus told the BBC that the fires were "extraordinarily fierce" with flames leaping as high as 60 metres (198 feet).

Fires are thought to have been started deliberately

The BBC's Red Harrison in Sydney says the firemen - many of them volunteers who gave up Christmas 
to fight the blazes - could face 
their most dangerous days in many years.

Prime Minister John Howard is due to fly over the 
worst affected areas to see the scale of the damage.

Many residents were forced to abandon Christmas celebrations and spent Tuesday fighting fires in 
their backyards in an effort to save their homes.

Some 5,000 firefighters helped by aircraft dropping 
water are trying to control at least 70 bush fires in 
temperatures around 40 Celsius and winds of 90 
km/h (56 mph).

Fires spreading fast

A spokesman for the Rural Fire Service, Cameron Wade, 
said the fires so far were not as widespread as 
devastating outbreaks in 1994 that killed four people, 
but were spreading rapidly.

"In 1994, there were 284 fires going at any one time,
" Mr Wade said. "This is only about 75, but actually the 
weather conditions and their speed [of movement] is unprecedented."

Blazes around the Australian national capital, Canberra, to the south, 
are apparently now under control.

But in the north-eastern state of Queensland, ambulance officials say five people have died in Brisbane from heart 
attacks induced by the heat.

Choking fumes

Desperate New South Wales residents and Christmas holidaymakers 
battled the fierce flames with garden hoses, some standing on their 
roofs in the hot, swirling winds.

The fires also prompted a total fire ban across most of 
the state, causing the cancellation of outdoor Christmas barbecues.

Our correspondents say that to the north of Sydney on Tuesday, you could just about see the remains of the blue skies of what had been a cloudless summer's day.

But the sun - a faint red disc in the sky - had been almost totally obscured by the smoke.

Thick and choking smoke has blocked visibility over wide areas, forcing police 
to close major roads and ruining the Christmas travel plans of thousands of motorists.

Some train services have also been suspended and many 
towns are without water.

Some small towns have been cut off and police are warning 
people not even to try to drive west from Sydney.

In other developments:

  • More than 3,000 people are evacuated from the Royal 
    National Park 

  • in Sydney's south

  • Settlements in the Blue Mountains 80 km (50 miles) 
    to the west of 
    Sydney are devastated

  • Residents are evacuated from parts of Queanbeyan 
    near Canberra

  • Fire crews continue water bombing after bush fires 
    threatened homes 
    near Parliament in Canberra.

Fire Brigade spokesman Peter Hobbs said some of the fires 
had been deliberately lit.

He said: "With the conditions we have, hot temperatures 
and strong winds, it's an ideal situation for people who want 
to cause havoc and mayhem."

The fires began in western New South Wales on Thursday 
and have since burnt out thousands of hectares of land

 and claimed the lives of thousands of sheep and cattle.

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