Fears rise over Australia wildfires
Firefighters battling wildfires in Australia are braced for conditions to get worse in the coming days, with high temperatures and strong winds expected to intensify the danger.
In the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, one of the worst-hit regions in fire-ravaged New South Wales state, 193 homes have been destroyed and another 109 damaged by the fire which peaked on Thursday, the Rural Fire Service said.
The damage toll was more than double the count from the previous day and was expected to continue to rise as assessment teams and police move deeper into the destruction zone in search of survivors and victims.
Homes have been reported destroyed in other regions, but confirmed numbers are not yet available.
With 68 fires still burning - 22 of them out of control - and dangerous weather conditions forecast through until Thursday, authorities are expecting the worst.
"We could see some very, very dire conditions ranging right across the Blue Mountains," Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons told Nine Network television.
"The reason we are particularly concerned is that we went into last Thursday with not too much fire. We're going into some bad weather now with lots of fire and literally 500 kilometers (310 miles) of fire edge that needs to be dealt with, and that will present serious issues should we see that hot, dry, windy weather which is likely toward the middle of the week," he said.
A 63-year-old man died of a heart attack on Thursday while protecting his home from fire at Lake Munmorah, north of Sydney, and at least five people - including three firefighters - have been treated in hospitals for burns and smoke inhalation, officials said.
Police are investigating allegations that two girls aged 12 and 13 tried to light a fire in a woodland on Sydney's western fringe on Friday. Firefighters were able to extinguish a small fire in that area without damage to property.
Police said the girls were questioned and then released. No charges were filed, but an investigation was continuing.
Arson investigators are examining the origins of several of more than 100 fires that have threatened towns surrounding Sydney in recent days.
The wildfires have been extraordinarily intense and unusually early in an annual fire season that peaks during the southern hemisphere summer, which begins in December.
Around 1,500 firefighters have been back-burning to contain blazes since winds and temperatures became milder on Friday. Several roads in fire-affected areas north, west and south of Sydney have been closed.
Wildfires are common in Australia, though they do not tend to pop up in large numbers until the summer. This year's unusually dry winter and hotter than average spring have led to perfect fire conditions.
In February 2009, wildfires killed 173 people and destroyed more than 2,000 homes in Victoria state.