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Heavy rain brings welcome relief to Sydney

By Grant Holloway

SYDNEY, Australia (CNN) -- Australia's two-week-old bush fire crisis has finally taken a turn for the better, with unexpectedly heavy overnight rainfall in and around Sydney bringing some relief to the beleaguered city.

But fire authorities warned Monday that the rain had not been sufficient to dampen all the blazes and a predicted return to hot and windy conditions could see danger conditions quickly return.

By early afternoon blue skies had returned to Sydney and the temperature lifted above 30 degrees Celsius (90 degrees Fahrenheit) although humidity levels were considerably higher than in the past few weeks.

The rain had also hampered backburning efforts in the Blue Mountains region to Sydney's west, while falls had been insufficient to douse fires burning on the New South Wales south coast.

That said, some of the worst-affected areas received up to 40 millimeters (1.5 inches) of rain -- heavier than weather bureau predictions -- easing the burden of weary fire crews.

Thousands evacuated the resort city of Sussex Inlet in Australia, fleeing intense fires. Channel 7 Australia's Morgan Ogg reports

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'You don't have to be a rocket scientist to work out that the rain has brought considerable relief to fire fighting efforts through much of eastern New South Wales," State Fire Commissioner Phil Koperberg told media.

"It has made the task of mopping up much easier."

But, he said, the "hard and dirty work" of mopping up would continue for many, many days.

About 20,000 firefighters from around Australia have been deployed across New South Wales, with around 8,000 volunteers on the ground at any one time.

Koperberg said the rain also allowed authorities to divert more resources to the blazes still burning to the south of Sydney.

Last week those fires forced more than 5,000 people from the vacation resort of Sussex Inlet to evacuate their houses and spend the night trapped on beach by the flames.

The fire fighting effort has also been boosted Monday by the arrival in Sydney, via an Antonov air transporter, of two Erikson Air-Crane helitankers from the United States.

The two giant water-bombing helicopters join a third Air-Crane and more than 50 other aircraft already in use against these fires.

The helicopter, which delivers a 9,000 liter payload of water, has proved very effective in protecting property from fires.

So far only about 170 properties have been lost in the fires which have destroyed more than 500,000 hectares (1.2 million acres) of bushland.

Sydney, a city of 4 million people, is the commercial capital of Australia.

It is renowned not only for its picturesque harbor, but also the extensive native bush parklands that punctuate the city's suburbs and fringe districts.

Australia's dry summers and vast tracts of combustible eucalyptus forest make bush fires a frequent event, but the expansion of city suburbs into native bush areas over the past few decades has increased the damaging impact of the infernos.

The impact of the latest fires, which are the worst to be experienced in New South Wales, has been worsened by the activity of arsonists who are suspected to have deliberately lit more than half of the blazes over the past two weeks.

A police arson task force has arrested 23 arson suspects so far, including 15 juveniles.


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