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Australia fires: Authorities fret over 'bad as it gets' forecast

SYDNEY - Firefighters worked desperately to contain massive wildfires burning in mountains west of Sydney on Tuesday, but with forecasts of high winds and dangerously hot weather, Australian authorities fear more houses and lives will be lost.

More than 200 homes have been destroyed in New South Wales state since Thursday, when fires tore through scattered communities on Sydney's outskirts, razing entire streets. One man died after suffering a heart attack trying to protect his home.

"The forecast and scenario for [Wednesday] is about as bad as it gets," New South Wales Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said. "There is a very real potential for more loss of homes and loss of life."

Sixty fires were burning on Tuesday, with the largest and most dangerous in the Blue Mountains around 60 miles west of Sydney.

The fires are expected to flare on Wednesday with the return of temperatures in the high-80 degree Fahrenheit range and winds gusting up to 62 mph.

Sydney and its surrounding regions have been given an "extreme fire danger rating" for Wednesday. 

Authorities ordered schools in the Blue Mountains to be closed on Wednesday and evacuated nursing homes in the area.

The early season fires have burned through more than 300,000 acres and have a perimeter of some 990 miles. Air pollution in parts of Sydney spiked on Tuesday to dangerously high levels as smoke and ash blanketed the city.

Thousands of firefighters, including some from New Zealand, had joined the battle, using hundreds of fire engines and 90 aircraft.

With steep hills carpeted by eucalyptus forests and dotted with small communities, the Blue Mountains are a popular day trip from Sydney, but its rugged and often inaccessible terrain can become a fire nightmare during the long, hot Southern Hemisphere summer.

Police have arrested several children suspected of starting a number of different fires. Other fires were sparked by power lines arcing in strong winds, according to the fire service.

With dry weather and a massive land area, Australia is particularly prone to bushfires. In 2009, the "Black Saturday" wildfires in Victoria state killed 173 people and caused $4.4 billion worth of damage.

Record hot and dry weather across the continent and an early start to the fire season have rekindled arguments on mankind's impact on climate and what can be done to mitigate it.