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Sydney warned to brace for new fires

More than 5,000 volunteer firefighters are keeping the fires under control, officials say
More than 5,000 volunteer firefighters are keeping the fires under control, officials say  

SYDNEY, Australia (CNN) -- Emergency officials in Australia are warning that bushfires scorching residential areas near Sydney could flare again.

Lower-than-predicted temperatures Monday helped firefighters contain hundreds of bushfires raging for a week, but the arrival of new storm fronts in the area has raised fears that lightning strikes could spark new blazes.

The storms have brought with them high winds, which have helped to fan the flames, but little of the desperately needed rain.

Forecasters are warning that Tuesday will see the return of dry winds from Australia's vast Outback with temperatures once again soaring to in the region of 38 degrees Celsius (100 F).

So far more than 250,000 hectares of bush land has been destroyed by the blazes, many of which were deliberately lit, some as recently as Sunday police say.

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Police say so far they have arrested six suspected arsonists, but several more remain at large.

Meanwhile officials say the fires themselves are being kept under some control by more than 5,000 volunteer firefighters and residents who have been battling the flames since Christmas Day.

New South Wales State Premier Bob Carr has suggested his government might increase the maximum penalty for arson, now set at 14 years imprisonment.

In parts of Sydney visibility fell below 100 meters Monday forcing flights into and out of the city to be diverted or delayed.

However, despite the smoke and the destruction, a massive fireworks display went ahead to mark the arrival of the New Year.

But with a total fire ban in force throughout the state of New South Wales other fireworks displays needed special clearance from the fire service.

Any intended displays sited near bushland were unlikely to be approved.

Rural Fire Service Commissioner Phil Koperberg said Monday some of the fires still had the potential to create major property damage, but he urged people to stay calm, saying the fire service was now "massively resourced".

While the fire behavior had been erratic, and therefore harder to control, "we are not, hopefully, staring down the barrel of some massive catastrophe," he said.

Koperberg said fire service actions had so far saved more than 11,000 properties.

However, stronger north-westerly winds predicted for the next three days have the potential to fan the blazes and push them through the firebreaks created by the volunteers over the weekend and threaten more densely populated areas.

Koperberg said people in danger areas should do all they could to protect their properties from ember showers thrown up by the high winds.

More than 150 homes and properties, mostly south and west of the city, have been destroyed by the bush fires but there have been no reports of death or serious injury.



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