UK & World News
Australia Bushfires Prompt 'Mega-Fire' Fears
A "mega-fire" is threatening southeastern Australia as fears grow that strong winds expected later this week could merge two huge bushfires that firefighters are trying to tame.
Crews have been battling fires that flared in high winds and searing heat across the state of New South Wales since last week.
The flames have destroyed 200 homes and left many others damaged.
While dozens of blazes have been contained, 63 were still alight and 17 of them out of control, enveloping Sydney in a thick white smoke haze that prompted warnings for people to stay indoors and avoid exercising.
Volunteer firefighter Mark O'Carrigan, who has lived in the affected mountains all his life, told Sky News there had been times in the last few days when it was "pretty bloody scary".
Efforts had been hampered by people who hadn't prepared their homes for the ever-present possibility of fire but there had also been great camaraderie.
He said thousands of volunteers had come from all over Australia to help fight the fires and the response he had seen was "amazing".
"I had a volunteer firefighter ring me up to thank me for my hospitality. I couldn't believe the guy when I am so indebted to him for having saved my house.
"They are amazing people and they do it for free."
The main area of concern on Monday was near the town of Lithgow, west of Sydney, where a fire with a perimeter of 187 miles has already burned more than 103,000 acres. It threatens the communities of Bilpin, Bell, Clarence and Dargan.
Officials fear intensifying heat and winds this week could push it into another blaze at nearby Mount Victoria in the Blue Mountains and then move towards the populated areas of Katoomba and Leura.
"I don't think I've ever used the word mega-fire," said New South Wales rural fire service commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons.
"But the reality is that the modelling indicates that there's every likelihood that in the forecast weather conditions that these two fires, particularly up in the back end of the mountains, will merge at some point."
The Australian military is investigating whether it was responsible for starting the blaze, northwest of Sydney.
The Australian Defence Force said its personnel were carrying out explosive ordnance training in the area on Wednesday, the day the blaze started.
Meanwhile, an 11-year-old boy has been charged with deliberately lighting two fires on the New South Wales Central Coast last week.
One of those fires forced hundreds of people to flee their homes and saw the closure of Newcastle airport.
Another boy, aged 15, was arrested over one of those blazes but has not been charged.
A 14-year-old has been charged with starting a separate fire on Sunday near Rutherford, a suburb north of Sydney, which was quickly extinguished.
Amid the worst fire disaster in the state for nearly 50 years, New South Wales declared a state of emergency on Sunday, which gives firefighters the power to forcibly evacuate people, with penalties for refusing.
Emergency Services Minister Mike Gallacher said every possible resource was being used, including firefighters being drafted in from interstate and the possibility that the military could also be deployed.
"Everything is being thrown at this, I can assure you," he said.
With hundreds of people evacuated from their homes due to the encroaching flames, police have revealed they are dealing with reports of looting from victims, although the number of incidents is small.
State Premier Barry O'Farrell called looters "scumbags" and vowed to track them down.
"I'm just appalled that at these critical times, when people have been evacuated from homes or whether people have left homes because of fire dangers, that other scumbags in the community would front up and seek to rob them," he said.