| A resident of Berowra, northern Sydney, carries her dog through smoke as bushfires approach her home. (Reuters)
Sydney, Dec. 6 (Reuters): Engulfed in choking, blinding smoke, firefighters fought flames house to house in northern Sydney today as gale-force winds whipped up fierce bushfires threatening scores of homes in Australia’s main city.
Desperate residents wearing swimming goggles and wet scarves around their faces stood shoulder-to-shoulder with firefighters, trying to douse burning fences with garden hoses or throwing buckets of water towards the sound of roaring, crackling infernos.
“This is what we have been dreading, a very big, uncontrolled fire, flaring up with strong winds. We are fighting the fire house by house, which is the hardest way to fight a fire,” said fireman Ian Krimmer standing in front of a smouldering house.
The body of an 81-year-old man was found in a burned-out caravan in scorched bushland today, bringing to two the number killed since Sydney’s fire crisis flared on Wednesday.
A man trapped by huge walls of fire near Dead Horse Bay in Sydney’s far north today was winched to safety by a helicopter as flames and smoke surrounded him. There were 79 fires burning through New South Wales state, which like the rest of Australia is in the grip of drought, but a major blaze to Sydney’s north and another in the Blue Mountains to the west of the city posed the greatest danger.
“EL NINO in your area NOW be fire wise,” read a sign hanging on a telegraph pole at Berowra Heights in northern Sydney.
More than 20 Sydney homes have been destroyed, but exhausted firefighters said no houses were lost today. One house was earlier reported destroyed. “We have had thousands of houses saved. The firefighting effort has been remarkable,” said Cameron Wade, a spokesman for the New South Wales Rural Fire Service.
“The sheer tenacity of the crews is amazing. They have fought fires up to backyards. They will not give up.” More than 4,000 firefighters and 80 water-bombing aircraft have joined the fight against fires.
that officials say could be far worse than those of last Christmas, when Sydney was ringed by flames, and among the worst in 30 years.
”We've got an almost unprecedented line of fire,” said rural fire commissioner Phil Koperberg, referring to a 30-km (18-mile) front of fire threatening the northern suburb of Berowra Heights. The blaze doubled in size overnight to 16,000 ha (40,000 acres).
Firefighters suspect many fires have been deliberately lit, with 30 starting in one hour on Wednesday. An 18-year-old mentally impaired man appeared in court on Friday charged with setting a major blaze in Sydney's west on Wednesday.
Koperberg said milder weather was forecast on the weekend but potentially devastating hot, dry conditions would return Monday.“It is physically impossible to control the fires we have between now and then,” he said.
Smoke billowed hundreds of metres (feet) into the air along Wyanna Street in Berowra Heights on Friday as fire burnt through bushland towards homes. But when it turned to a menacing dark orange, hearts sank as residents watched helplessly, knowing the conflagration was roaring up from the valley below.
Day became night as the street was blanketed in blinding smoke, and firefighters disappeared, running into the eerie netherworld, only to re-emerge when the smoke cleared.
The drone of helicopters, including giant Sky Cranes dubbed ”Elvis”,“The Incredible Hulk” and“Georgia Peach”, each capable of dumping nine tonnes of water at a time, could be heard through the smoke overhead.
”Come on. Hit it,” one man shouted at the invisible helicopters as they dropped their loads on the flames.
A fireman wearing breathing apparatus kicked open a door of a burning house, dousing the flames by soaking the living room in water. On the street a crying woman watched as her house burnt.
A few doors down Rebecca Griffin and her girlfriends used hoses and buckets of water to put out burning fence and tree stumps after firefighters stopped the blaze at their backdoor.
The heat from the charred earth could be felt through their boots. Hot ash landed on skin and clothes, momentarily singeing flesh.
Further along the street a party of two dozen young men and women manned a bucket line at the back of a house, while two firemen pumped water from a hot-tub to fight back the fire when it charged towards them, smothering all in thick, choking smoke.
”This is the true nature of the Australian spirit,” said 25-year-old Wayne Rogers. And in true Aussie spirit the young Australians fought the blaze with cold beers in hand.
While the situation was grave, they joked about not spilling any beer as all water was needed to fight the fire. But when the fire flared, beers were put down, and up went a chorus:“Here it comes, guys”. By late Friday the footballing mates had saved 17 Wyanna Street on several occasions.