A Tinder-Dry State Is Put to the Torch

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JANUARY 14, 2002 | NO.1

Christmas signals the start of Australia's vacation season. This summer it marked the eruption of New South Wales' worst bushfires in seven years. Whipped by hot, dry and gusty weather, 100 blazes burned out more than half a million hectares of bushland and pasture, from the border with Queensland to the South Coast and as far inland as Narromine, 300 km northwest of Sydney. Six thousand livestock and countless wild animals were killed, hundreds of homes and other buildings were destroyed, and thousands of residents and holidaymakers spent anxious nights in evacuation centers.

In fire-fringed Sydney, ash blackened beaches while plumes of smoke, which reached as far as New Zealand's North Island, sent pollution levels soaring. On New Year's Day, flames licked the city's leafy North Shore, but a massive response - 15,000 firefighters were deployed statewide, and a helicopter tanker dumped half a million liters of water and fire retardant - rendered the fires less devastating than the blazes of late 1994, which killed four people and claimed 100 suburban homes.

Responding to evidence that almost half the fires were deliberately lit, N.S.W. Premier Bob Carr foreshadowed tougher penalties for arsonists and promised to rub juvenile firebugs' "noses in the ashes they have caused." But Carr dismissed critics of the National Parks and Wildlife Service who said not enough had been done to reduce ground tinder by controlled backburning.

As the blame was weighed, firefighters continued their battle, waiting for the rains that will allow them to mop up the mess.

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