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Tiny town in Australia saved from fire

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MILTON, Australia — Firefighters and water-dumping helicopters from the United States saved a tiny coastal village from fast-moving flames on Tuesday as officials declared that the worst of 16-day bush fires had passed.

"For now, the peak is over," New South Wales fire chief Phil Koperberg said of the emergency, which has burned 170 homes but caused no casualties.

However, some fires still raged in forests and hundreds of firefighters remained on duty. "Every bit of burning bush, twig, branch, whatever, has to be detected and . . . completely suppressed," Koperberg said.

The biggest wildfires burned in the Shoalhaven region, about 120 miles south of Sydney. As many as 2,000 people were ordered to evacuate several towns on Monday.

"We were only able to grab photographs, important documents, the dog, the cat and the family," said resident Julie Bayliff. "There was lots of smoke and the winds were fierce."

By Tuesday morning, some fire fronts changed direction because of shifting winds and many people returned.

By sunset, firefighters had contained one major blaze and allowed about 200 people from the hamlet of Fisherman's Paradise to return as well. Officials said no homes were lost.

Three huge water-dumping helicopters, leased from Erickson Air-Crane Inc. of Central Point, Ore., helped control the fires.

One has played a major role in quelling fires across New South Wales since late December. The two others arrived from the United States on Monday.

The choppers, known as heli-tankers, can suck 3,500 gallons of water into their tanks in less than a minute and then dump it immediately on flames.

Brief rain has doused many other blazes nearer to Sydney on Monday.

Firefighters have been battling fires for 16 days. At the height of the "black Christmas fires" last week, thick smoke shrouded Sydney, a city of 4 million, and some fires entered suburban parkland.

Police have arrested 28 people, many of them children and teen-agers, for allegedly starting blazes.

More than 1.2 million acres of forest and farmland have been burnt and thousands of native animals, including koalas, have been killed or injured.

However, some bushland has already begun to regenerate.

Officials said green shoots were starting to sprout from scorched trees and bushes in the 40,000-acre Royal National Park, on Sydney's southern outskirts. It is the world's second-oldest national park after Yellowstone in the United States.

Australia's forests are dominated by eucalyptus and other oil-based trees and plants that burn easily, but grow back quickly after fires.