Nearly 100 wildfires yesterday raged across Australia’s most populous state, killing one person, destroying dozens of houses and forcing hundreds of evacuations as the nation’s annual fire season got off to an unusually early start.
Milder conditions were helping firefighters after unseasonably hot temperatures and strong winds on Thursday fanned flames across the parched landscape and threatened towns surrounding Sydney.
Rural Fire Service spokesman Matt Sun said the number of fires in New South Wales state had dropped from more than 100 overnight to 89, burning across 97,000 hectares, but 25 continued to burn out of control.
Eighty-one homes were destroyed and another 37 damaged, the fire service said, with the number expected to rise as assessment teams and police move deeper into the destruction zone.
Roads and schools in the worst-hit areas were closed and officials were searching the rubble for survivors and victims.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said hundreds of homes may have been destroyed, but the exact number was still not known.
“I know some information that’s been passed to me that just in one street, there were 40 homes lost,” Rural Fire Service Deputy Commissioner Rob Rogers told Nine Network television.
Blue Mountains Mayor Mark Greenhill visited the devastated village of Winmalee, on Sydney’s western fringe, where some streets were almost entirely razed.
“It’s been an awful 24 hours for the Blue Mountains” region, Greenhill told Nine. “We’ve lost possibly scores of homes.”
The fire service said a 63-year-old man had a fatal heart attack while he was fighting a fire at his home at Lake Munmorah, north of Sydney, late on Thursday. The man was identified by friends as Walter Linder.
Firefighters had evacuated most of the residents and their horses from the area, but a few decided to stay to protect their homes, neighbor Sue Cartwright said.
“It’s pretty scary at the moment,” she said. “I’m surprised that more lives haven’t been lost considering the scale of it up here.”
Two people suffering from smoke inhalation were in intensive care at Sydney’s Concord Hospital yesterday, hospital spokeswoman Kate Benson said.
Three firefighters were also treated for burns, officials said.
Wildfires are common in Australia, though they do not tend to pop up in large numbers until the summer, which begins in December. This year’s unusually dry winter and hotter than average spring have led to perfect fire conditions.