One man died as thousands of firefighters -- including hundreds of reinforcements -- battled dozens of fires burning out of control across southeastern Australia yesterday, some of them fanned by winds of up to 100kph.
A thick smoke haze hung over Sydney as several large fires burned out of control in heavily wooded and inaccessible areas on the northern and western outskirts of Australia's largest city.
"Today is going to be a difficult day. The next two to three weeks are going to be fairly intensive in terms of attempting to contain these fires," New South Wales Rural Fire Service (RFS) Commissioner Phil Koperberg told reporters.
One fire in inaccessible bushland in the Blue Mountains just west of Sydney had burnt out more than 20,000 hectares since it began 10 days ago. Koperberg said the blaze was "making a run" as it was fanned by high winds.
About 600 firefighters were battling the blaze, which had broken containment lines and could threaten townships, officials said. Of 66 fires in New South Wales, at least 11 were causing major concern, they said.
In January 2004, the deadliest bushfires in 22 years killed nine people and injured dozens in South Australia.
Four people were killed and 530 homes destroyed in Canberra in 2003. That same year, bushfires fueled by drought ravaged a slice of Australia three times the size of Britain.
Firefighters have already warned that Australia was facing an extreme fire danger this summer after a worsening drought left rural areas bone dry and scientists fear that climate change will bring more frequent higher temperatures and less rainfall.
Police said they had found the body of an elderly man tangled in a wire fence near the township of Nelligen, about 200km south of Sydney, late on Tuesday after a small grassfire not related to the major blazes broke out.
Koperberg said the man might have accidentally lit the fire while using a smoke device to tend beehives.
"In his attempt to suppress this fire with buckets of water, he may have become entangled in a barbed wire fence and tragically lost his life as the grassfire overtook him," he said.
RFS spokesman Cameron Wade said smoke plumes from the Grose Valley fire in the Blue Mountains were reaching over 13,120m into the air.
"It's creating it's own weather pattern at the moment, which is a concern to us. We're certainly seeing some very erratic fire behavior simply because of the amount of heat that's coming out of that area," Wade told Sky TV.
Other major fires were burning near Orange and Molong and in the Hunter Valley, north of Sydney.
Milder weather had helped firefighters contain several fires in the southwest of Victoria State while about 15 fires were still burning in South Australia, officials said.