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Firefighters gaining upper hand in Sydney fires

By Grant Holloway

A NSW firefighter observes a blaze near property in Berowra to Sydney's north
A NSW firefighter observes a blaze near property in Berowra to Sydney's north

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Water-carrying helicopters are aiding Australian firefighters outside Sydney. CNN's Grant Holloway reports (December 5)
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Wildfires continue to ravage Sydney as dry and windy conditions fan blazes around Australia's largest city. Channel 7 Australia reports. (December 5)
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SYDNEY, Australia (CNN) -- Weary Sydney firefighters peered through a thick pall of smoke for the first signs of rain Monday as cooler temperatures and calmer wind conditions brought some relief after six days battling relentless blazes.

Weather forecasters were predicting showers later in the day and the possibility of what would be a most welcome thunderstorm in the fire-ravaged areas to the west of the city.

Fire authorites are now cautiously optimistic they are gaining the upper hand in battling the 65 fires which have surrounded this city of 4 million since Wednesday afternoon.

A weekend of cooler, calmer weather has allowed firefighters to use backburning to create containment lines around the most threatening blazes, but only a sustained and significant downpour will see fire authorities start to relax.

State Fire Services Chief Phil Koperberg told media Monday the problem of the fires around Sydney was "dissipating."

"But ... the firefighters will be out there for many many days yet performing the arduous, dirty, labor-intensive task of mopping up," he said.

"It's just as critical in terms of the totality of fire management that that job is done effectively otherwise we will have outbreaks again as soon as the sun shines again."

Around 4,500 firefighters and up to 90 aircraft have been used to battle the fires which have now claimed one life and destroyed 43 homes.

So far the fires have burnt out more than 120,000 hectares (296,0000 acres) of bushland and caused an estimated Aust. $100 million ($56 million) in damage.

Last Christmas, similar fires around Sydney burnt for more than two weeks and destroyed over 770,000 hectares of land.

The danger of renewed blazes wreaking havoc is far from over, however. Mid-afternoon is the most threatening time for the Sydney fires as winds strengthen and change direction and temperatures increase.

Forecasters are predicting a maximum temperature of 30 degrees Celsius (85 degrees Fahrenheit) Monday, which, while still warm, is a far cry from the 40 degree temperatures endured last week.

Winds are blowing at around 25 to 30 kilometers per hour (15 to 20 mph) with gusts of up to 50 kilometers per hour (80 mph).

A fleet of waterbombing aircraft helped saved an historic hotel in the Blue Mountains
A fleet of waterbombing aircraft helped saved an historic hotel in the Blue Mountains

Fires in the Blue Mountains to Sydney's west and blazes north of Sydney at Berowra are still causing the most concern, as are regional blazes at Shoalhaven and Eurobodalla, both coastal areas to the south of Sydney.

Fire authorities also warned Monday that residents, bushwalkers and sightseers should avoid walking through burnt-out areas due to the dangers of falling trees.

Most national parks in and around Sydney have been closed to the public and a total fire ban remains in place across the bulk of Australia's most populous state.

On Sunday, Australia's bushfire crisis shifted dramatically to the picturesque Blue Mountains where helicopters were dropping water bombs on a fresh blaze to try to stop it reaching a historic landmark hotel.

Flames 30-40 meters (98-130 feet) high swept toward the rambling, 98-year-old Hydro Majestic Hotel perched on the edge of the Megalong Valley in the Blue Mountains 120 km (75 miles) west of Sydney.

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