100 wildfires rage across Australian state
SYDNEY (AP) -- Authorities are assessing the damage from more than a hundred wildfires burning across Australia's most populous state Friday, killing one man, razing an unknown number of homes and forcing the evacuations of hundreds of residents, officials said.
Firefighters were assisted by milder conditions Friday after unseasonably hot temperatures and strong winds fanned flames across the parched landscape and threatening towns surrounding Sydney, Rural Fire Service Deputy Commissioner Rob Rogers said. But 36 of more than 100 fires continued to burn out of control.
He said assessment teams and police were moving into the destruction zones Friday morning in search of survivors and victims.
The Fire Service said a 63-year-old man suffered a fatal heart attack while he was fighting a fire at his home at Lake Munmorah on Thursday afternoon.
Emergency Services Minister Mike Gallacher said "a couple" of firefighters had been injured. He did not detail the injuries.
A plane carrying infrared imaging equipment flew over the fires Thursday night and recorded heat spots where maps showed homes were located, he said. The red and orange spots indicated the homes were burning.
"Sadly where most of these little red dots were, that's where yesterday morning there used to be houses," Gallacher told Nine Network television.
He said a "significant" number of homes had been lost, but added he had no estimate of the tally.
Blue Mountains Mayor Mark Greenhill visited the devastated village of Winmalee, on Sydney's western fringe, where the risk had subsided after some streets were almost entirely razed.
"It's been an awful 24 hours for the Blue Mountains" region, Greenhill told Nine.
"We've lost possibly scores of homes, I can't put the number closer than that," he said. "In the area that we're standing at at the moment, we're talking about 40 to 50 homes (destroyed) which is just awful."
The fire front was still visible from Winmalee on Friday, but had moved toward the neighboring village of Springwood where homes were being evacuated.
"The pace of this fire was just unbelievable," Greenhill said.
Hundreds of residents spent Thursday night in dozens of evacuation centers in the Blue Mountains and elsewhere in New South Wales. Most were unaware of the fate of their homes.
New South Wales Premier Barry O'Farrell said many would be frustrated by being refused permission to return to their homes on Friday because of the ongoing danger.
Rogers said the fires could not be extinguished before high temperatures and strong winds are forecast to return on Sunday and Monday.
Temperatures west of Sydney were forecast to reach around 23 degrees Celsius (73 degrees Fahrenheit) on Friday -- around 10 degrees Celsius (18 degrees Fahrenheit) cooler than on Thursday. Gentle breezes had replaced strong winds.
"It's calmed down a lot since yesterday, but make no mistake: we've got thousands of kilometers of fire front that we are faced with trying to deal with," Rogers told Nine Network.
"This is absolutely far from being over," he added.
Smoke from the fires blocked the sun over downtown Sydney on Thursday, casting an eerie, orange haze across the city.
Wildfires are common throughout Australia in the warmer months. In February 2009, wildfires killed 173 people and destroyed more than 2,000 homes in Victoria state.