Homes destroyed by wildfires raging in Australia

SYDNEY, Australia

Milder conditions were helping firefighters after Thursday's unseasonably hot temperatures and strong winds fanned flames across the parched landscape and threatened towns surrounding Sydney.

Rural Fire Service spokeswoman Natalie Sanders said the number of fires in New South Wales state had dropped from more than 100 overnight to 94, burning across 86,000 hectares (330 square miles). But 28 continued to burn out of control, she said.

Rural Fire Service Deputy Commissioner Rob Rogers said interstate firefighters were on their way to help fight the blazes, including one burning near the town of Lithgow, west of the Blue Mountains, across a front 25 kilometers (16 miles) wide.

Assessment teams and police were moving into the destruction zones in search of survivors and victims, he said. Officials also were trying to determine how many homes were destroyed.

"I know some information that's been passed to me that just in one street, there were 40 homes lost," Rogers told Nine Network television.

The Fire Service said a 63-year-old man has a fatal heart attack while he was fighting a fire at his home at Lake Munmorah, north of Sydney, late Thursday.

Two firefighters were hospitalized with injuries, and one had undergone surgery, New South Wales Premier Barry O'Farrell said. He did not detail the injuries.

A plane carrying infrared imaging equipment flew over the fires Thursday night and recorded heat spots where maps showed homes were located, Emergency Services Minister Mike Gallacher said. The red and orange spots indicated the homes were burning.

"Sadly, where most of these little red dots were, that's where yesterday morning there used to be houses," Gallacher told Nine.

Blue Mountains Mayor Mark Greenhill visited the devastated village of Winmalee, on Sydney's western fringe, where the risk had subsided after some streets were almost entirely razed.

"It's been an awful 24 hours for the Blue Mountains" region, Greenhill told Nine.

"We've lost possibly scores of homes, I can't put the number closer than that," he said. "In the area that we're standing at at the moment, we're talking about 40 to 50 homes (destroyed) which is just awful."

The fire front was still visible from Winmalee on Friday, but had moved toward the neighboring village of Springwood where homes were being evacuated.

Hundreds of residents spent Thursday night in dozens of evacuation centers in the Blue Mountains and elsewhere in New South Wales. Most were unaware of the fate of their homes.

Rogers said firefighters wouldn't be able to extinguish the blazes before high temperatures and strong winds are forecast to return on Sunday and Monday.

Temperatures west of Sydney were expected to reach around 23 degrees Celsius (73 degrees Fahrenheit) on Friday - around 10 degrees Celsius (18 degrees Fahrenheit) cooler than on Thursday. Gentle breezes had replaced strong winds.

"It's calmed down a lot since yesterday, but make no mistake: We've got thousands of kilometers of fire front that we are faced with trying to deal with," Rogers said.

"This is absolutely far from being over," he added.

A smoky haze from the fires hung over downtown Sydney, where even inside high-rise office buildings, the stench of smoke permeated the air.

Wildfires are common throughout Australia in the warmer months. In February 2009, wildfires killed 173 people and destroyed more than 2,000 homes in Victoria state.

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