Thousands of Australians were forced to evacuate their homes by wind-whipped wildfires that have already destroyed almost 200 properties and claimed the life of one man.
Fueled by unseasonably high temperatures and strong gusts, 100 fires were burning in New South Wales near the country’s biggest city Sydney, according to the eastern Australian state’s Rural Fire Service (RFS), who briefed the country’s new Prime Minister Tony Abbott about the crisis.
Australian media reported Friday the Department of Defense was investigating whether an explosives training exercise had started the fire. Hundreds of firefighters were working to contain the blaze.
The fires have already claimed the life of Walter Linder who died from a heart attack while trying to defend his home from a fire in Lake Munmorah, a coastal community a short drive north of Sydney.
The 63-year-old was found slumped over a bathtub in the backyard of his property, where he was trying to fight a fire with buckets of water, according to Australia’s 9 News channel.
“It was just horrible,” his neighbor Martin Campbell told the station.
Others returned to their communities to find their homes and neighborhoods destroyed by the flames.
“It looks like a holocaust,” Damon White, 45, told the Sydney Morning Herald early Friday, as he surveyed the burned out homes in Winmalee, a small town around 60 miles west of Sydney.
"On one side there's a line of 10 houses in a row and they're all gone,” he added, “It's not like the fire in that area picked one or two houses ... it took them all.”
In Sydney, callers to radio stations on Thursday reported ash and burnt leaves falling on some of the city's beaches, including the world famous Bondi, according to The Associated Press.
A thick pall of smoke from the fires in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney moved across the city over some of its best-known landmarks, including the Sydney Opera House and the Harbour Bridge, forcing thousands of people to spend Thursday night in evacuation centers on the western outskirts of the city, as well as to the north and the south.
The Australian Red Cross was helping to facilitate them.
Emergency warnings remained in place for fires in the Blue Mountains and the Central Coast, just north of Sydney, early Friday.
The biggest threat was on an uncontained fire in Wyong, around 45 miles north of Sydney, with some homes believed to have been destroyed, the RFS said in its latest update.
Authorities expected to reopen some areas in the Blue Mountains as the weather turned milder on Friday.
Despite the damage New South Wales Police and Emergency Services Minister, Mike Gallacher said the loss of just 100 homes could be considered "lucky" given the magnitude of the threat posed by the fires.
"I suspect given what I saw last night ... I think the potential is most certainly much higher," Gallacher told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.
With dry weather and a massive land area, Australia is particularly prone to brushfires. In 2009, the "Black Saturday" wildfires in Victoria state killed 173 people and caused $4.4 billion worth of damage.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
First published October 18 2013, 7:44 PM