Australians told to flee homes as hot winds fan Sydney fire threat

SYDNEY (REUTERS) - Thousands of Australians were told to evacuate their homes on Wednesday as dry winds created the conditions for a firestorm in mountainous bushland outside Sydney, where firefighters have battled for days to bring dozens of wildfires under control.

More than 200 homes have been destroyed in New South Wales (NSW) state since last Thursday, when bushfires tore through scattered communities to Sydney's south and west, razing entire streets. One man died after suffering a heart attack trying to protect his home.

Wednesday's fire conditions were shaping up to be the worst so far in the state's bushfire crisis, Rural Fire Service (RFS) Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said.

"If you don't have a plan, let me give you one," NSW Emergency Minister Michael Gallacher said. "Get into the car, drive down to the city metropolitan area and let the firefighters do what they can do to protect the community, should this turn for the worse."

Temperatures in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney are expected to reach up to 30 deg C, while in Sydney itself they could hit 35 deg C. Hot, dry winds gusting up to 100 kmph are also expected, posing the greatest challenge to firefighters.

"This is the day where we've been receiving forecasts of the worst of weather for this week and that forecast is still staying with those predictions," Mr Fitzsimmons told reporters, warning of extreme fire conditions.

There are still 59 fires burning across the state on Wednesday, with 19 out of control, according to the latest update from the RFS.

Authorities ordered schools in the Blue Mountains to be closed, evacuated nursing homes and advised people living in the area to leave before conditions deteriorated.

The Blue Mountains, whose foothills extend down to western Sydney suburbs like Penrith, are populated with a mix of farmers, small business owners and white-collar commuters who make the trip into the city every day. Known for their spectacular escarpments, eucalyptus forests and scattered small communities, they are a popular tourist spot for Sydneysiders on weekends.

But the region's often inaccessible terrain and highly combustible vegetation can become a fire nightmare during the long, hot Southern Hemisphere summer.

The insurance council of Australia said claims of more than A$93 million (S$120 million) were expected to grow and the NSW government has declared a state of emergency enabling it to order evacuations.

Police have arrested several children suspected of starting a number of different fires. Other fires were sparked by power lines arcing in strong winds, according to the fire service.