Fires Still Blazing Down Under

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Australian firemen fight a bush fire in Pymble, New South Wales, Australia

Rain may be the best hope for Australians caught in the path of wildfires still raging near Sydney. Almost two weeks after the fires began around the southeastern Australian city, the blazes have blackened millions of acres of land, and officials said Friday there’s little to suggest the end is near. Roughly 20,000 firefighters from across the country are now battling the flames.

Approximately 100 fires are burning in the Australian state of New South Wales, making up roughly 1,200 miles of fire lines. The largest individual blaze, near Singleton, is reported to have charred almost 150,000 acres of land. In total, the fires have burned about 1.2 million acres, and have destroyed over 150 homes, though no human deaths have been reported. Some residents have not been so lucky; officials say that thousands of koalas, one of Australia’s most cherished symbols, are likely dead as the result of the fires burning through their forest habitat. Prior to the start of the fires, Australia’s population of koalas was thought to be roughly 100,000.

Nature has given firefighters some help, as temperatures across the area have dropped from highs in the 100-degree range earlier this week. Still, officials say that given other conditions, including gusty winds, the change will have little dampening effect on the blazes. Fire officials say that rain is the best change that they can hope for, and is the key to ending the wildfires. There is some hope on the horizon, in the form of two giant water-bombing helicopters. Two Erikson Air-Crane Helitankers are expected to arrive in the area Monday, courtesy of fire officials in the western U.S.

To date, authorities have made 23 arrests in connection to the fires, including a 14- and 15-year-old detained this Friday. Fifteen of the suspects are said to be juveniles, but authorities have said their tender age will earn them no leniency from the law. "Any youngster nabbed lighting a fire will not get off with a warning from a judge," said State Premier Bob Carr.