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Volunteer firefighters fight Australia blaze

By Ashley Fantz and Hilary Whiteman, CNN
updated 7:54 PM EST, Wed January 9, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: "It's about the worst I've ever experienced in just-on 60 years," firefighter says
  • NEW: Hundreds of New South Wales farmer's sheep die in fires
  • The weather has been unforgiving across Australia in recent days
  • Fires have scorched 350,000 hectares (more than 1,350 square miles) of the state

(CNN) -- Large swaths of southern New South Wales in Australia were threatened Wednesday by raging flames, the severity of which has surprised even veteran firefighters.

"It's about the worst I've ever experienced in just-on 60 years of firefighting," said Capt. Jim Simpson with the New South Wales Rural Fire Service.

Outside the town of Yass, flames swept rapidly across more than 16,000 hectares (40,000 acres) of farmland and up to the fence around Catherine Frith's house, where its march was halted.

"The firefighters were amazing," she said. "There must have been about 60 trucks come in."

Her sheep did not fare as well. "We know about 500 sheep have died -- or are being shot at the moment," she said.

The Wambelong Fire burns near the Siding Spring Observatory near Coonabarabran, Australia, on Monday, January 14. The Wambelong Fire burns near the Siding Spring Observatory near Coonabarabran, Australia, on Monday, January 14.
Fires threaten parts of Australia
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Fires threaten parts of Australia Fires threaten parts of Australia

Thanks to firefighters like Simpson, the town of Tarcutta in southwestern New South Wales escaped by a whisker the fate suffered by Frith's sheep. A blackened line stops just outside the town of 200 residents.

Hundreds of fires scorch Australia

"The wind change is probably what saved us as well as some pretty hard work from a lot of crews," said one firefighter.

'Catastrophic' fire in Australian state

Despite such victories, New South Wales's premier, Barry O'Farrell, told reporters on Wednesday that danger remains. "There are in the order of 130, 140 fires across the state and 30 uncontained," he said.

'Catastrophic' fire risk in Australia

The New South Wales Rural Fire Service said more than 1,200 firefighters with more than 360 trucks and more than 80 aircraft were working to stop the flames.

Australia PM: We stand by Tasmania

There were no reports of deaths or serious injuries related to the fires, which have blackened 350,000 hectares (more than 1,350 square miles) of the state. One firefighter received slight injuries to his hands and face, firefighter Matt Inwood told CNN Wednesday. "The next step in all this is for us to take stock of the devastation and destruction," Inwood said.

Photos: Catastrophic fires threaten Australia

The weather has been brutal across Australia in recent days. The Australian Bureau of Meteorology said a recent heat wave had set temperature records.

The average maximum daily temperature of 40.33 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) recorded on Monday was the highest since December 1972. And during the last four months of 2012, average maximum daily temperatures were the highest on record since records began in 1910, the bureau said.

Temperatures reached a peak of 43 degrees Celsius (109 degrees Fahrenheit) in Sydney on Tuesday. The intense heat, combined with strong winds, raised fears that even the smallest spark could be fanned into a blaze.

Lower temperatures on Wednesday prompted authorities to rescind a "catastrophic warning," but the risk was still deemed "severe" in the northeast section of New South Wales. Higher temperatures are forecast for the weekend.

Read more: Scores cope with heartbreak after bushfires rip through Tasmania

Watch: Hot weather fuels Australian fires

The extreme heat combined with the late onset of the Australian monsoon have turned large areas of bush and scrub land across the state into a tinderbox.

In the first days of the year, the heat contributed to the spread of fires across Tasmania, where police have charged a 31-year-old man with causing one of the worst of the fires by not extinguishing a campfire before leaving the site.

Fires erupted this week in Victoria as well.

Watch: Residents, vacationers flee fire zone

Prime Minister Julia Gillard went on television to warn of the dangers and urged people to watch news reports and judge whether they should get out of the path of any flames.

"Thankfully there has been no loss of life or large scale loss of houses; however the bushfires have had a devastating effect on livestock and farmland," she said. She said assistance would be available to help residents recover in 37 areas of New South Wales.

The fires were reminiscent of what happened on February 7, 2009, also known as "Black Saturday." That's when bushfires across the state of Victoria left 173 people dead and 500 injured and destroyed thousands of homes.

CNN's Tom Watkins and Aliza Kassim contributed to this report.

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