MORE than 90 fires, fanned by high winds and furnace-hot heat, are burning out of control all over the Australian state of New South Wales.
With more than 400,000 hectares (1 million acres) burned, the entire state has been placed under a total and indefinite fire ban. Firefighters have stopped trying to contain the blazes and are focusing on saving homes. Up to press time, property damage has been minimal, but thousands of residents are being evacuated from communities south of Sydney.
``These fires are unparalleled in living history,'' said NSW Premier John Fahey while on vacation.
As many as 5,000 mostly volunteer firefighters have been battling blazes since Tuesday and an additional 5,000 were added yesterday. Three people, including two firefighters, have died in the blazes. Relief crews are being brought in from other states. Two hundred federal troops are on standby. Every commercial helicopter in the state and two Navy helicopters are also being used to help fight the fires.
Families traditionally flock to the coast and to the Hawkesbury River in January to beat the summer heat. The fires have forced the evacuation of vacationers from trailer parks and campgrounds all over the state. In Bateman's Bay, a favorite vacation spot in the nation's capital of Canberra, 3,000 homes were endangered.
Arson is suspected in many of the fires, including some that have been relit after being extinguished. Acting NSW Premier Ian Armstrong called for maximum arson penalties to be increased to $100,000 (Australian; US$68,6800) or three years jail.
Firefighters have reportedly been hampered by more bush than usual because of a decreased level of preventative burning, or hazard reduction.
``There is an ongoing dispute between various land-management authorities as to whether or not hazard-reduction should take place,'' says Jim Elliot, an official of the NSW Bush Fire Services. ``It's become a political dispute between conservationists and land owners. Various legislative impediments have made hazard-reduction work more difficult to carry out. It's safe to say it hasn't been at a level we would like to have seen.''