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Rain weakens Australia fires

Weary and exhausted firefighters welcomed a light rain and predicted that the worst may be over.

BY PJ HELLER | BALTIMORE | December 10, 2002

Weary and exhausted firefighters welcomed a light rain and predicted that the worst may be over in their battle with 65 bushfires that have threatened this city for nearly a week.

Even so, firefighters were keeping a wary eye out to ensure that no new blazes erupted and were expected to spend the rest of this week in mopping up operations.

"Around Sydney . . . the problem is dissipating but I have to say to you that the firefighters will be out there for many many days yet performing the arduous, dirty, labor-intensive task of mopping up," said Rural Fire Service Chief Phil Koperberg. "It's just as critical in terms of the totality of fire management that that job is done effectively. Otherwise we will have outbreaks as soon as the sun shines again."

Nearly 50 homes have been destroyed in New South Wales since the fires began last week. At least one person has died. The fires have charred more than 296,000 acres of bushland and caused an estimated $56 million in damages.

The thousands of firefighters battling the blazes on the ground and from aircraft were able to gain the upper hand over the weekend, thanks to milder and calmer weather.

"It's been a superhuman effort," Koperberg said.

A total fire ban across most of New South Wales, Australia's most populous state, remains in effect. Most national parks around the Sydney area have also been closed to the public.

Andrew Zikking, the Blue Mountains brigade crew leader, said firefighters were hopeful that the worst was behind them.

"If it stays calm for another day, we'll definitely be on top of it, the worst is over," he said.

"By tomorrow, we should see this crisis begin to ease considerably," Koperberg added. "It's looking particularly good, we're nearing the end of this particular fire crisis. All of the containment lines held today with the exception of the Blue Mountains."

Flare-ups in the Blue Mountains about 50 miles west of Sydney destroyed one home and threatened the historic Hydro Majestic Hotel. The hotel was razed some 80 years ago in a similar bushfire, according to news reports.

"I've been with the Rural Fire Service for 30 years and have never come across conditions like what I saw at the Hydro," said firefighter Michael Hennessy.

In addition to concerns about fires in the Blue Mountains, authorities expressed concern about blazes at Berowra north of Sydney and at Shoalhaven and Eurobodalla, coastal areas south of Sydney.

For the past few weeks, The Salvation Army has been providing meals to emergency service personnel as well as evacuees, stranded residents and residents who have been without power.

The fires erupted last Wednesday in the arid bush -- the country is facing one of its worst droughts in 100 years -- around Sydney. Authorities said some of the blazes could have been arson. So far, one 18-year-old student has been arrested and charged with arson.

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