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Bush fires encircle Sydney

By Grant Holloway

SYDNEY, Australia (CNN) -- A total fire ban has been declared across much of the state of New South Wales Wednesday as more than 100 bush fires continue to encircle the city of Sydney.

A smoky brown haze engulfs much of the city of 4 million people as continuing hot and windy weather conditions fan the fires.

Australia's largest city is now virtually cut off from the rest of the country with all major highways out of the city blocked by the fires.

About 4,000 firefighters are battling a fire front estimated to be 700 kilometers (400 miles) long with many of the fires still too dangerous to attack directly.

So far there have been no fatalities reported but the NSW Rural Fire Service said 90 properties had been confirmed as destroyed, including a school.

Shifting winds are making things tougher for firefighters in New South Wales trying to contain around 70 separate bush fires. CNN's Mike Skinner reports (December 26)

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More than 1,000 people have been evacuated from their homes so far.

Further property and bushland damage is expected through the day with the weather forecast predicting continuing high temperatures, low humidity and moderate to strong winds.

The fire service warned Wednesday that conditions were still conducive to fire activity and the fire danger for much of the state remained extreme.

It urged people to take particular care.

The New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service has closed most of its parks until further notice.

Fire are burning in 11 major national parks as well as numerous other parks and bushland reserves.

A number of the fires were started by lightning strikes, however many others are believed to be the work of arsonists.

NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Phil Koperberg attacked the suspected arsonists Wednesday saying such people defied description.

"It's bad enough when you have to contend with accidental fires, fires which are a result of lightning as indeed at least one of the major fires yesterday was," Koperberg told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

"But then to have the majority of fires lit by people for whom I can find no description, threatening the lives of literally hundreds of people and destroying the possessions of hundreds more, is a sad reflection on those sorts of people."

The fires are the worst since 1994 when four lives were lost and 185 homes destroyed around Sydney.

The NSW Government has declared parts of Sydney's west, southern Sydney, the central coast, Illawarra, the north coast, central west and the Hunter as natural disaster areas.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard will visit some of the worst-affected areas Wednesday.

Bush fires are common in the Australian summer when high temperatures, dry timber and gusting winds fuel blazes.




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