Australian fire crisis eases, blazes still threaten small towns

By Maggie Lu Yueyang

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australian firefighters battled massive wildfires in bushland around Sydney on Wednesday, but hot weather that could have caused a catastrophic mega-fire did not materialise, allowing authorities to tell some evacuated residents it was safe to return to home.

However, the crisis was far from over with new fires igniting and strong winds fanning blazes in the Blue Mountains, a major commuter area of small towns west of Sydney.

Around 60 fires were still burning across New South Wales (NSW) state, with more than 2,000 firefighters struggling to contain them, with more hot and windy weather forecast.

As exhausted firefighters moved from fire to fire, residents used garden hoses to try and save their homes.

GRAPHIC: Map showing extent of wildfires near Sydney

http://link.reuters.com/caw83v

More than 200 homes have been destroyed in NSW since last Thursday, when fires tore through Sydney's outskirts, razing entire streets. One man died from a heart attack while trying to save his home.

Earlier on Wednesday, residents in the Blue Mountains were urged to drive down to the safety of metropolitan Sydney, but by the evening some were returning home.

"If you have been someone that has chosen to depart the Blue Mountains today...(to) be out of harm's way, then it would be safe to head back home tonight because the risk has been averted," said Rural Fire Service (RFS) Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons.

Fitzsimmons warned the situation could deteriorate again and urged people to be vigilant.

"There are still fires flaring up, impacting on communities this afternoon," he said. "I won't rest easy until I know things have settled right down over the next 24 hours or so and we start seeing some really good further consolidation of control lines and bringing these fires more under control."

The fires have burned through more than 120,000 hectares (300,000 acres) and have a perimeter of some 1,600 km (990 miles). Firefighters fear strong winds may see three major fires in the Blue Mountains join up in coming days, creating one massive wildfire.

Air pollution in parts of Sydney has spiked with some neighbourhoods blanketed in smoke.

The NSW government has declared a state of emergency enabling it to order evacuations, hoping to avoid a repeat of the 2009 "Black Saturday" fires in Victoria state that killed 173 people and caused $4.4 billion worth of damage.

The insurance council of Australia said claims of more than A$93 million were expected to grow.

Police have arrested several children suspected of starting a number of different fires. Other fires were sparked by power lines arcing in strong winds, according to the fire service.

The biggest fire was started during an army training exercise when an explosion ignited bushland.

CLIMATE CHANGE

Record hot and dry weather across Australia and an early start to the fire season in the Southern Hemisphere spring have revived arguments about mankind's impact on climate change.

Climate scientists say Australia is one of the countries most at risk from global warming, with fires, floods and droughts a feature of the continent.

But conservative Prime Minister Tony Abbott has rejected any link between the Sydney fires and rising carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, a major Australian export.

"Climate change is real and we should take strong action against it," Abbott told local radio.

"But these fires are certainly not a function of climate change, they are just a function of life in Australia."

Elected in September, Abbott plans to repeal a carbon emissions tax installed by the previous government and replace it with a "Direct Action" scheme involving things like reforestation and financial incentives to business to cut pollution.

(Additional reporting by Lincoln Feast; Editing by Stephen Coates and Michael Perry)

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