Volunteer firefighters battle massive Australia wildfire

As many as 1,500 trained volunteer firefighters have sprung into action to help prevent a huge swath of New South Wales countryside from being swallowed by an inferno.

That's remarkable and heartening, firefighter Matt Inwood told CNN Wednesday.

"Many of these people are losing out on their daily work by devoting time to put out the fire," he said. There are at least 130 fires around New South Wales.

It may be even more remarkable that no one has been reported killed or seriously injured in fires that have eaten through 350,000 hectares (more than 1,350 square miles) of the state. One firefighter got slight wounds to his hands and face, Inwood said.

Livestock have died and farmland has been destroyed by the flames. "The next step in all this is for us to take stock of the devastation and destruction," Inwood said. The government also will be tallying how many people lost their livelihoods.

The weather has been unforgiving across Australia in recent days. The Australian Bureau of Meteorology confirmed that the recent heat wave had set temperature records. The heat topped 109 degrees in Sydney on Tuesday.

Lower temperatures prompted authorities to remove a "catastrophic warning" on Wednesday, but the fire risk was still officially deemed "severe" in the northeast part of New South Wales. Higher temperatures are forecast to return by the weekend.

Stifling heat combined with the late onset of the Australian monsoon have created a tinderbox out of large areas of bush and scrub land across the state.

In the first days of the new year, extreme heat also contributed to the spread of fires across Tasmania, where police have charged a 31-year-old man who they allege caused one of the worst of the fires by not fully extinguishing a campfire before leaving the site.

Fires erupted in Victoria this week as well.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard went on television to warn of the dangers of the fire and urged people to watch reports, and judge whether they should get out of the path of any flames.

She announced natural disaster assistance for 37 local government areas in New South Wales. "Thankfully there has been no loss of life or large scale loss of houses, however the bushfires have had a devastating effect on livestock and farmland," she said.

The fire threat recalled "Black Saturday" in 2009 when soaring temperatures and high winds fanned the flames of a series of bush fires across the state of Victoria, leaving 173 people dead and 500 injured. Thousands of homes were destroyed.

On Tuesday afternoon, the Australian government announced that the state fire service would be granted access to Defence Force bases, fuel and personnel as part of the federal government disaster response plan.


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