Australian fire threat receding but emergency workers brace for hot, windy weather

Thursday, January 10th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) _ The threat to people and property from about 80 wildfires still burning across Australia's most populous state had receded Thursday, but fire crews were bracing for expected hot, windy weather.

No lives have been lost but 170 homes have been destroyed and more than 1.2 million acres of forest and farmland razed by the fires, most burning since Christmas Eve.

Moderating winds and temperatures since Tuesday have allowed fire crews to contain most of the blazes and ensure none threaten populated areas.

``This is where they are actually putting out every last stump and every last tree so that when the winds come up tomorrow (Friday), as they're predicted, it doesn't blow the fire into new unburnt ground,'' said Rural Fire Service spokesman Cameron Wade.

Temperatures around Sydney are expected to jump to 97 degrees Friday, and winds will strengthen, the Bureau of Meteorology said.

About 3,000 Rural Fire Service workers across the state battled the blazes. At the peak of the crisis last week, up to 20,000 firefighters, mostly volunteers, were mobilized and thousands of residents evacuated as the flames threatened Sydney's suburbs.

The worst fire still burning in the coastal resort district of Shoalhaven Shire, 120 miles south of Sydney, is being tackled by hundreds of firefighters and half a dozen aircraft, including three huge water-dumping helicopters.

Fire officials said they were making progress, but the battle was far from over.

Australia is usually vulnerable to bush fires during the sweltering southern hemisphere summer, but many of the 100 blazes in New South Wales state were sparked by arsonists.

Police said Thursday that 33 people _ 24 juveniles and nine adults _ have been arrested for arson since Christmas Day.