A City's Christmas Wreath of Flame

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Sydney is lapped by bushland as well as by water. On a hot, dry, windy day, a lit match or cigarette can turn that bush into a sea of flames. It happens almost every summer, and the risk makes Christmas a fretful season as well as a festive one.

In a few scorching hours on Dec. 4, more than 30 blazes broke out. Soon there were fires to the city's north, south and west; a sulfurous curtain over the sea closed the circle. The fronts multiplied fast, as the wind, twisting and turning like a mad dog, tossed embers in all directions. Firefighters could only watch helplessly as sparks leapt rivers and roads, sowing flame trees as they went.

"It's looking like a scene out of some horror movie," said New South Wales Rural Fire Service chief Phil Koperberg, who by week's end had sent 4,500 men and women-many from interstate-into the fray. "Normally you can plot a fire and model it. That's not happening anymore."

While commuters sweated in traffic or on stalled trains-highways and rail lines were cut several times-residents of threatened suburbs fought to save their homes, beating out spot fires with wet towels or dousing walls in swimming-pool water. At press time, 70 fires were burning around the state. Forty-one families had lost their homes, and two people had perished: one man burned to death in a caravan, another died of a heart attack.

As in previous years, arsonists were blamed for most of the fires. A mentally disabled 18-year-old was arrested over one inferno, but wilier individuals may have eluded capture. Arsonists and drought have become regular co-conspirators in ecological vandalism. While both stalk the state, the prospects for a fire-free Christmas appear remote.

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