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Police arrest 21 in Aussie bush fires

SHARE Police arrest 21 in Aussie bush fires

SYDNEY — Police in Australia have arrested 21 people, some as young as 9, on suspicion of arson as bush fires in and around Sydney, the nation's largest city, wreaked further damage Wednesday.

More than 160 homes have been razed by the fires, which took hold on Christmas Day driven by hot, dry weather and high winds, conditions that helped fuel the deadly 1983 fires that swept through Victoria and South Australia states, killing 76 people.

Firefighters, many of them volunteers, have battled to control the latest blazes. But gusting winds have meant no respite in efforts to stop the more than 100 fires burning on fronts totaling 1,250 miles across New South Wales state.

Many homes remained under threat in Sydney's leafy northern suburbs for a second day Wednesday. On a third major fire front in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, some residents were evacuated by helicopter as the flames approached.

"It's hard to think of a bigger threat," New South Wales Premier Bob Carr told Australian Broadcasting Corp. television. "It's very much like war."

Local radio reported that four or five thousand residents of the popular holiday township of Sussex Inlet, 120 miles south of Sydney, had been evacuated as bush fires surrounding the town threatened properties and cut power supplies.

Some were moved to two local clubs and others to the beach where boats were on standby for further evacuation.

Temperatures of up to 95 degrees and winds gusting to 45 mph fanned fires near Sydney and across New South Wales.

But fire officials said the hot, windy conditions were expected to ease over the next few days.

As thousands of people try to tame the fires, a 35-person police unit, named Strike Force Tronto, is tracking down arsonists.

Police said that of the 21 people arrested on suspicion of lighting fires deliberately, 14 were juveniles.

The "Black Christmas" fires, as they have become known, are the most intense since Sydney was ringed by fire in 1994. Four people were killed in the 1994 blazes. No one has died in the latest fires.

The harsh weather whipped up a 35-mile fire-front stretching in an arc from the Blue Mountains to the west and the coast to the south. Many fires broke containment lines set by 10,000 firefighters and support staff in the past few days.

New South Wales state Fire Brigade spokesman Ian Krimmer said at least six homes were destroyed in one fire burning on a wide front around the Wollondilly River about 55 miles southwest of Sydney.

Property was also under threat in the suburb of Sandy Point, less than 15 miles southwest of Sydney's business district.

New South Wales Rural Fire Service Commissioner Phil Koperberg had predicted conditions Wednesday would be among the worst imaginable.

Houses remained under threat from a fire burning on several fronts just a 10-minute drive from Sydney's central business district in the suburb of West Pymble.

Residents and firefighters fought flames with hoses pumping water from backyard swimming pools and with aerial water bombing by helicopters.

No houses have been lost in Sydney's suburbs but each morning the city, ringed by fires to the south, north and west, wakes to a heavy blanket of smoke and ash litters its famous beaches.

The fires have devastated national parks and farms and killed thousands of sheep. About 740,000 acres of bush have been destroyed.

Premier Carr said earlier Wednesday he wants to change juvenile laws to force young arsonists to visit hospital burns wards, bushfire victims and to clean up bushfire areas.

"I think sending them to juvenile prison is in some respect too good for them. What is better is to rub their noses in the ashes they have caused by making them clean up the mess, work with the victims and go into a burns ward and talk to people who have suffered from fire," he told reporters.

Dozens of firefighters have been treated for smoke inhalation and a 51-year-old woman suffered serious head and spinal injuries after she fell from her roof while defending her home.