SYDNEY, Australia — A smoky haze choked the summer sky above Sydney and white ash rained down Saturday as massive wildfires swept bushland to the north and edged closer to a beach village to the south.
Firefighters battling dozens of blazes around Australia's biggest city for 13 days took advantage of a break from the bone-dry heat to prepare for an onslaught they fear will come next week.
"They have been working through the night and working through the day to strengthen containment lines around the fires," said Cameron Wade of the New South Wales Rural Fire Service. "It is hard, arduous work."
Some of the 100 or so fires raging across New South Wales state were too big to tackle head-on and burned out of control north, west and south of Sydney.
The biggest was racing through a national park near the tiny town of Colo Heights, about 40 miles northwest of Sydney. Wade said it had jumped a highway and was heading into rugged bushland inaccessible to fire crews.
"It is just monstrous in size," he said. "I don't have the figures. But looking at it on the map it takes up a huge amount of space."
Residents were being ordered to leave their homes as a precaution amid fears that the fire might merge with others burning nearby.
Firefighters were trying to stop a blaze from advancing on the beach and fishing hamlet of Bendalong, about 120 miles south of Sydney.
Flames and smoke earlier cut off its only access road, and some residents and vacationers had camped on a nearby beach fearing that the fire might swoop down from thick forest and onto the village. However, the road opened Saturday after the fire eased slightly.
Nearby Sussex Inlet tried to return to normal after fire razed a dozen homes Wednesday and forced thousands of residents to flee.
"It was terrifying. Children were screaming. The smoke was shocking," said Dawn Cody, spending her summer break in the coastal town.
Another large fire was in the Blue Mountains 50 miles west of Sydney, threatening houses and roaring up steep hillsides and gullies. Witnesses said flames have climbed high into native eucalyptus trees, sometimes more than 100 feet above the ground.
Temperatures dropped to about 79 degrees Saturday after climbing above 100 degrees earlier this week, and humidity also rose after a string of dry days, helping firefighters. However, meteorologists predicted temperatures would soar again next week, bringing dry outback winds — conditions that have fed the "Black Christmas" fires, which began Dec. 24.
The fires have destroyed 170 houses and scorched more than 1.2 million acres. Thousands of people have been evacuated from their homes, though most have been returning soon after the immediate danger passes.
There have been no reports of deaths or serious injuries among residents.
Wildlife experts say thousands of koalas likely have been killed or injured, further stressing the national icon's fragile population. Some populations in New South Wales may take 15 years to recover.
Sydney has been shrouded in smoke haze, with white ash falling over its suburbs and downtown. Spectacular walls of red flames have lit up the night sky.
Poor visibility from thick smoke during the day has hampered firefighting efforts by making it difficult for helicopters to dump water on hot spots.
Authorities say nearly half of the fires have been set deliberately, many by teen-agers and children. Police have arrested 23 suspects, including a 9-year-old boy.