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NSW: NSW fire crews will be pushed to limit in weekend scorcher

By Kim Christian and Adam Bennett
06 Feb 2009 9:50 PM
EDS: Updates information on Lane Cove fire

SYDNEY, Feb 6 AAP - Extremely hot, dry and windy conditions are expected to push firefighters to the limit over the weekend as NSW braces for 40-plus temperatures.

More than 70,000 Rural Fire Service (RFS) volunteers are on high alert, with extreme temperatures and dry conditions forecast for more than 60 per cent of NSW.

Authorities are warning firebugs to consider the potentially deadly consequences of lighting fires. And residents have been told not to be complacent and to have fire plans in place.

Up to 1,000 NSW Fire Brigades (NSWFB) personnel will also be standing by on the urban fringes of Sydney, Newcastle, Wollongong and the Central Coast as the mercury reaches the mid-40s in central and southern NSW.

Total fire bans have been declared across the state including the greater Sydney, Hunter and Illawarra regions, with the exception of the northeast corner of the state.

The premier, emergency services minister and fire chiefs said a statewide warning had been issued to ensure residents prepared their homes for the worst.

NSWFB Commissioner Greg Mullins issued a chilling reminder for people to cast their minds back to the devastating 1994 fires.

"The biggest enemy of firefighters in conditions like this is complacency and lack of knowledge," Mr Mullins said.

"If people think it won't happen to them, all they need to do is think back to 1994 and 2001 where fires burnt literally into the suburbs of Sydney as close as Chatswood."

He urged residents to make necessary preparations to reduce fire dangers around their home before the weekend.

"We have 25 fire engines prepped and ready to be staffed by off-duty firefighters," he said.

RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said the extreme heat of up to 46 degrees celsius in western NSW, combined with low humidity, made vegetation "susceptible to fire ignition".

"There is a very real threat with these hot dry conditions this weekend," he said.

Humidity is expected to drop below 10 per cent in some areas of the state, with hot wind gusts of up to 50km/h.

"The possibility, if a fire does occur, for it to expand very rapidly, is very, very real," an RFS spokesman said.

Mr Fitzsimmons said about 40 fires were currently burning throughout NSW.

Authorities were most concerned about three major fires in the Shoalhaven, Tumut and Bega areas.

"The fire that requires the most attention is the one in the Bega area and that is because it is an active fire, it is a large fire," Mr Fitzsimmons said.

A grass fire near a stretch of national park at Vaucluse in Sydney's east was brought under control on Friday afternoon.

Meanwhile, a blaze in Lane Cove National Park in northern Sydney burnt out a hectare of bushland, but didn't cause any property damage.

"We were able to get a lot of crews on scene early, and utilise the aerial bombing, and we were able to get on top of it," NSWFB Superintendent Paul McGuiggan said.

"At no stage was property in danger, but a number of times fire did flare up (at) the back fences of a properties."

Crews were now mopping up in the area, in preparation for the scorching conditions on Saturday.

"At the moment, we're going through the area with thermal imaging cameras making sure we identify any trees or spot fires of logs that still might be burning," Super McGuiggan said.

"Our mission this evening is to ensure that fire is totally blackened out so that there is no chance of reignition overnight or in the morning."

Premier Nathan Rees said RFS crews were prepared for whatever the weekend may bring.

He said Sydneysiders must do their part by obeying any total fire ban notifications.

"We have some 70,000 volunteers on standby, but if I had a preference I wouldn't use any of them over the weekend," he said.

Emergency Services Minister Steve Whan said the government had "absolutely no tolerance for arsonists".

"We have extremely severe penalties in NSW and we will make sure that any arsonist who is caught will be dealt with severely," Mr Whan said.