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Aussie Firefighters Counter Worst Blazes in Memory

People were rescued from beaches by helicopter, ferry, surfboard

WINDS mean everything here. It was the hot, dry westerlies that fanned New South Wales' bush-fires into monsters. Now as the winds have slackened and are blowing from the cooler south-east, residents are starting to see the fire crisis abate.

New South Wales, Australia's most populated state, is experiencing the worst fires in living memory. The first fires started 12 days ago and have been at a crisis point for the last five days, running the length of the state's eastern seaboard and burning about 1.2 million acres of forest and grassland.

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Caused by a deadly combination of high temperatures, high winds, arson, and too much brush, the fire at first was confined to bushland and national parks. Then, on Friday it moved into suburbs and later into the Blue Mountains to the west, proving firefighters' worst fear for containment.

Wind whipped into tornadoes, and ferocious walls of fire leapt from ridge to ridge in the mountains and from street to street in the suburbs.

At its worst, the fires came to a residential area only five miles from downtown Sydney. At some points, firefighters gave up trying to contain the fires and concentrated on saving property; then it was just saving lives.

Despite the magnitude of many of the blazes and the numbers of fires, property damage has been lighter than expected. Only several hundred homes, rather than thousands, have been lost. And the death toll has been low: Two firefighters and two civilians have died.

Ten thousand firefighters, mostly volunteer, have come in from all over Australia to help battle as many as 140 separate fires. Shop clerks have fought next to national park staff, military personnel, and city fire brigades.

Fluky winds made the fires unpredictable. They would roar up to houses, then veer abruptly at the last minute. Neighborhoods look like checkerboards, with charred houses standing next to untouched ones.

Sydney has four major highways, two going south, one north, and one west. All have been closed at some point during the emergency. The F3 highway going north to Newcastle closed down Friday afternoon, stranding 750 cars all weekend. Some drivers ended up being taken into emergency centers to spend the night. The road was finally opened yesterday.

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Campers on the south coast fled a blazing camping area to a beach, where they were evacuated by helicopter.

On the northern coast, next to Ku-Ring-Gai Chase National Park, residents were evacuated by ferry. Others sat on boats in the harbor and watched as their houses burned. The fire was so hot, they could not get closer than 100 yards. And in Cronulla, surf rescue teams used surfboards to evacuate children.

Thousands of residents, including entire communities, were evacuated to emergency shelters, which were quickly stocked with food by residents not in danger.

This is the famous January holiday season; children are on summer school break and parents are taking long vacations.

But with all national parks closed and all major highways out of the city closed, and Sydney ringed by fire, many made their way to the city beaches.

Popular Balmoral beach looked like a refugee camp over the weekend, clogged with families eating fish and chips while the high temperatures kept people in the water till dark.

Smoke from the south and north fires clogged the air and flames could be seen from a few miles away. The surf was brown with washed-up bush debris.

While the state is not completely out of danger - new fires spring up after others have been put out - the winds are expected to continue to be cooler and rain may arrive midweek.

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