SYDNEY, Nov 13 (Reuters) - A cool change on Wednesday brought relief for firefighters battling massive bushfires in eastern Australia which destroyed 50 homes and saw flames come within metres of homes on the outskirts of Sydney.
Cooler conditions were expected to ease the danger in the state of New South Wales, where 83 fires were still burning, however changes in wind direction in the northeastern state of Queensland were expected to whip up flames there.
“We were fortunate the catastrophic ranges were not sustained for the long durations that were originally expected,” New South Wales Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons told reporters in Sydney on Wednesday morning.
Dense smoke that blanketed the northeastern part of the state on Tuesday had actually prevented strong winds from aggravating the fires, he said.
Firefighters were battling blazes over a more than 1,000 km (620 mile) perimeter on Wednesday, with more than 1.1 million hectares (2.7 million acres) of land either burnt or burning.
“We’re talking an enormous proportion of the landscape, particularly in northeastern New South Wales that remains at risk and continues to be damaged and devastated as a result of these fires,” Fitzsimmons said.
Police were investigating some fires that they suspected had been deliberately lit in Queensland and New South Wales. Four people in New South Wales were charged with breaching a total fire ban order, sparking fury from the state’s police minister.
“You must have arrived on Mars in a bubble if you didn’t know yesterday that the state was in severe danger,” he said at the same media conference.
One resident of the mid-north coast area of New South Wales, speaking from an evacuation centre in Taree, said her husband had stayed overnight at their home battling to keep a raging fire at bay.
“It was just chewing up everything,” Karen Weston told Australian Broadcasting Corp. “I’ve survived two other bushfires before this but never anything like this. I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Officials warned that while conditions were easing on Wednesday, a blast of hot air next week meant conditions would remain tough for firefighters.
“It’s going to be a long effort yet. Many days, many weeks, indeed many months if we don’t get rain before we properly bring these fires under control, establish consolidation and declare them safe,” Fitzsimmons said.
Reporting by Sonali Paul; Editing by Stephen Coates