Hot, dry and swirling winds fanned more than 100 uncontrollable bush fires and smoke clouds towered over Australia’s largest city today as angry officials vowed to punish arsonists, many of them children.
At least half of the wildfires have been deliberately lit since the crisis started 10 days ago, police said.
Thousands of residents fled their homes near Sydney as separate blazes joined and formed several massive fire fronts that totalled about 1,200 miles in length.
About 20,000 firefighters were stretched to their limit by the wild weather and hundreds of reinforcements were being flown in from other states and neighbouring New Zealand.
At least 21 arson suspects, including 14 children, have been arrested and police were searching for others. The seven adult suspects face a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison if convicted.
’’I want to rub their noses in the ashes they have caused,’’ said New South Wales Premier Bob Carr. ‘‘I want them to meet the people they have put at risk.’’
As many as 2,000 residents were ordered to flee Sussex Inlet, 60 miles south of Sydney after at least eight houses were burned by a fire that jumped across a main road. This brought to almost 160 the number of homes lost since the ‘‘black Christmas’’ wildfire emergency began.
’’People must leave their homes immediately,’’ said Wendy Woodward, an emergency service worker in the area.
About 600 people fled Bowen Mountain village in the Blue Mountains, 50 miles west of Sydney, ahead of a 37 mile wall of fire.
’’It is about as bad a picture as you could conjure up,’’ said Phil Koperberg, New South Wales state fire chief. ‘‘I have never seen anything like it in my 32 years of service.’’
A fire storm, thought to have been started by an arsonist on Tuesday, was burning through the Lane Cove National Park running through several affluent Sydney suburbs.
Officials said more than 250 homes had been saved and the city centre was not in danger.
Even so, it came within 11 miles of the heart of Sydney, where light white ash fell on office blocks and the smell of smoke permeated air conditioning systems.
Roads to the fire zone were closed to stop sightseers from hindering emergency services.
The situation worsened when southern hemisphere summer temperatures in some areas rose above 38 C (100 F) and dry Outback wind gusts gained strength.
In a desperate battle to bring the Sydney fire under control, hundreds of firefighters filled buckets from swimming pools.
Helicopters dumped water as 60 foot flames spewed clouds of thick, black smoke and came within feet of homes.
Overnight, as winds dropped and the blaze eased, fire crews worked hard to build firebreaks to protect neighbouring suburbs.
But by this morning, hot westerly winds regained their strength and whipped the flames. Red hot embers were blown into the air to start new spot fires.
Anxious residents did what they could to save their property and packed valuables in case they were ordered to evacuate.
While there have been no casualties from the blazes, the fires have blackened 741,000 acres of forest and farmland.