SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australian firefighters battling bush blazes ringing Sydney are taking special action to protect stands of historic Wollemi pines which are among the earth's oldest plants, dating back 150 million years to dinosaur times.
The native Australian conifers, from the Jurassic era, were discovered only in 1994 in a still-secret canyon in the Wollemi National Park, in the Blue Mountains area on Sydney's outskirts, and remain extremely rare.
Firefighters were building fire-breaks around sections of the remote forest and would throw in all the resources required to save the ancient trees, including use of aircraft, Rural Fire Service spokeswoman Rebel Talbot told Reuters on Saturday.
"We'll do whatever it takes," she said.
For weeks now thousands of firefighters have battled more than 50 blazes in New South Wales and Victoria states after one of Australia's worst droughts on record created tinderbox conditions. Blazes also broke out in remote areas of South Australia on the weekend.
Firefighters raced against the clock near Sydney, the country's most populous city, to contain fires ahead of predicted hot, gusty weather next week.
"Our volunteers are working 12-hour shifts, seven days a week, 24-hours a day," New South Wales Rural Fire Services Commissioner Phil Koperberg said on ABC radio on Saturday.
"There are some 3,500 people involved in the operation (and) a total of about 24 aircraft," he said. Firefighters are using bulldozers, tankers and other heavy equipment to combat the blazes.
One major fire in the Hunter Valley, which includes Wollemi National Park around 200 km northwest of Sydney, had burnt out more than 53,000 hectares of bushland.
The blaze was very large and in a remote, inaccessible area, Talbot said.
Another fire in the Blue Mountains, around 100 km west of Sydney, has burnt around 14,000 ha of mainly national park land.
On Saturday 12 fires were raging in New South Wales, including one in the Hawkesbury area, around 70 km north of Sydney.
Hot, windy weather on Saturday thwarted attempts to contain the Blue Mountains and Hawkesbury fires. Firefighters faced the prospect of working through the night to backburn forest litter.
"Next week we're looking at some treacherous conditions ... we're trying to get the best containment we can on these fires," Talbot said.