SYDNEY (Reuters) - Raging bushfires destroyed several homes and threatened others north of Sydney on Sunday as scorching temperatures and hot, dry winds fanned fires across southeastern Australia.
Temperatures reached up to 44 degrees Celsius (111 F) in some areas, and firefighters were battling scores of blazes, although authorities said cooler weather and rain were bringing relief to South Australia and parts of Victoria.
In New South Wales, Australia's most populous state, residents were evacuated from two small communities near Gosford, about 60 km north of Sydney, where several homes and some vehicles were destroyed by flames more than 20 metres high.
"Black smoke covering the sun, just scorching hot, 44 degrees. It's burning up here," Mitchell, a local resident told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.
Major roads leading north from Sydney, Australia's biggest city, were closed. Holidaymakers were stranded and serious fires and evacuations were reported in several other areas of the state, but there were no reports of injuries.
Thousands of firefighters had been put on high alert before the extreme weather conditions. A ban on lighting fires in the open is in effect across New South Wales, much of Victoria and South Australia until midnight on Sunday.
"The fires are widespread and breaking out right across the state," said New South Wales Rural Fire Service spokesperson Rebel Talbert.
Cooler conditions were expected by late evening, but this could bring fresh problems, with wind gusts of up to 80 km per hour making fire behaviour erratic, she said.
In western Victoria, where a large bushfire destroyed five homes near Stawell late on Saturday, rain brought relief to firefighters as they fought to contain a blaze that has burnt about 9,000 hectares (22,000 acres) of scrub and farmland.
Australia is scarred by bushfires every summer and every few years bushfires blaze into major cities which have fingers of bushland weaving through suburbs.
In January 2004, the deadliest bushfires in 22 years killed nine people and injured dozens in South Australia. The blazes were the worst since Ash Wednesday bushfires claimed 75 lives in South Australia and Victoria in 1983.
In 2003, bushfires destroyed a slice of Australia nearly three times the size of Britain, fuelled by one of the worst droughts in a century. Four people were killed and 530 homes destroyed when fire swept through the capital, Canberra, that year.
In 2002 and 1994, devastating bushfires destroyed scores of homes in Sydney.