Rain Damps Sydney Fires, South Coast Ablaze

SYDNEY, Australia, January 7, 2002 (ENS) - As Sunday night turned into Monday morning, rain began to fall heavily on the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, dousing destructive fires that have burned since Christmas Day.

Early Monday up to 40 mm (1.5 inches) of rain fell on fire lines in the Blue Mountains National Park area 60 kilometers (35 miles) west of Sydney and the Hawkesbury area 50 kilometers (30 miles) northwest of the city. Fire officials say the fires continue to smoulder and could re-ignite when the hot, dry weather resumes.

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Australian firefighters (Photo courtesy CSIRO)
On the tinder-dry south coast, fierce winds brought a new crisis for hundreds of exhasted firefighters last night. Walls of flame raced for the holiday town of Mollymook forcing evacuations of 1,400 people from this and other towns around Sussex Inlet, 93 miles south of Sydney. The south coast Princes Highway has been closed.

The evacuations are the largest number since last Wednesday, when 5,000 people were moved out of the Blue Mountains. No lives have been lost in the fires, but an estimated 170 homes have been burned.

The south coast blaze has burned more than 70,000 hectares (172,970 acres) of bush and destroyed more than a dozen houses. Firefighters are no longer trying to stop the fires with backburning but are retreating and moving house to house in an attempt to save the homes.

A crop duster plane that had been commandeered for aerial water drops crashed in high winds on a south coast beach near Moruya just after take off yesterday. The pilot was not hurt. The strong winds have forced all water bombing to be suspended on the south coast.

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Locations of fires and rain in New South Wales today (Map courtesy NSW Rural Fire Service)
Two giant water tanker helicopters from Erickson Air-Crane in Oregon arrived at Sydney Airport yesterday and began dropping loads of water on the Sydney fires this morning. The New South Wales state government is leasing the aircraft from the U.S. company for more than A$24,000 each a day.

They will take over from another Erickson Air-Crane borrowed from the city of Victoria that has prevented hundreds of homes from going up in smoke, and they will relieve 70 Australian firefighting aircraft, which need maintenance after 13 days on duty.

The Rural Fire Service Commissioner, Phil Koperberg, said the fire season is far from over and the aircraft are needed." The bulk of the problem has diminished but none of it has gone," he said.

Koperberg has renewed the total statewide ban on open fires. The weather forecast is for very high temperature, low humidity and moderate to strong winds and the fire danger is classed as "extreme or approaching extreme."

The weather forecast for Sydney does not mention rain until next Sunday.

Many of the fires appear to have been deliberately set. Police have arrested 26 arson suspects, most are male teenagers, but a 14 year old girl was arrested last week.

By satellite, smoke plumes from the Sydney fires can be seen over the Tasman Sea far to the south. More than 1.24 million acres have been charred despite the efforts of 20,000 firefighters and more than 70 water bombing aircraft.