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Wildfire threat eases as winds drop

Winds that were fanning wildfires and showering embers on threatened Australian communities have eased after scores of residents evacuated their homes in mountains west of Sydney.

All schools had closed in the Blue Mountains in anticipation of bad fire conditions, and authorities advised residents who were not prepared to defend their homes to leave for evacuation centres. One centre in west suburban Sydney was housing 120 evacuees.

Seventy-one blazes were burning in New South Wales state around Sydney, including 29 that were out of control, Rural Fire Service commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said.

As the temperatures and winds dropped, the danger of fire spreading eased with no reports of injuries or property loss.

Mr Fitzsimmons said many hours of firefighting are still to come, but added: "The broader risk to a much larger, more widespread population has certainly eased."

Temperatures in the fire zones rose above 32C and winds blew up to 50mph earlier, forcing water-bombing helicopters to suspend operations during the day, Fire Service spokesman Ben Shepherd said.

The early start of wildfires this year "is indicative of the unseasonably hot, dry conditions that have been building now throughout winter into spring, and we need to remind ourselves that we still have a long way to go as we look down the coming months into summer," Mr Fitzsimmons said.

Springwood resident Rae Tebbutt said the atmosphere was tense in the village that was one of the worst-hit last week, when the region lost more than 200 homes to blazes that also caused one death.

"Everyone is terrified," she said. "I've got three friends who have lost everything."

Meanwhile it emerged that a military training exercise started one of the fires. The Ru ral Fire Service said an investigation found that a massive fire near the city of Lithgow west of Sydney began at a nearby Defence Department training area on Wednesday last week.

-AP

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