Australia Wildfires Destroy Homes, Autos

SYDNEY, Australia (AP) - Powerful wildfires destroyed houses and cars on the outskirts of Sydney on Thursday, but 3,000 firefighters managed to save dozens of other dwellings.

Fire service spokesman John Winter said 18 homes had been razed since the fires erupted Wednesday afternoon - fewer than previously feared.

Television images showed flames engulfing buildings in the northwestern Sydney suburb of Glenorie as residents and firefighters tried to douse the flames.

``The saves have been quite incredible,'' said Phil Koperberg, commissioner of New South Wales state Rural Fire Service. ``The men and women on the ground today have performed miraculously.''

Hundreds of elderly people and children were evacuated as flames bore down on their homes but fire officials urged others to stay with their houses and hose them down to minimize damage.

A 73-year-old man died as he tried to herd horses away from a wall of flames, according to media reports.

Extra firefighters were being transferred to Sydney, Australia's most populous city, from other states to relieve their exhausted colleagues.

Prime Minister John Howard also offered the nation's defense forces to help battle the blazes which were fanned by hot, dry winds from the Outback as temperatures nudged 86 degrees.

A pall of gray smoke drifted over downtown Sydney from fires raging to the northwest and west of the city of 4 million. Other blazes were burning out of control to the southwest.

After a relatively calm morning, fires started to pick up in the early afternoon.

``There is no doubt the fires are stirring and threatening and we can reasonably expect ... that there is going to be a lot more activity before this day is out,'' said New South Wales Emergency Services Minister Bob Debus.

Police said they arrested an 18-year-old student and charged him with starting one of the blazes on Wednesday.

Others are believed to have been started by people tossing cigarette butts out of car windows. New South Wales political leader Bob Carr said throwing butts out of cars would be treated as arson, which carries a maximum 14-year sentence.

``This is the most extreme form of anti-social behavior you can see in our society,'' Carr told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.

As well as thousands of firefighters on the ground, dozens of water bombing helicopters and planes were in the air.

The main western highway in and out of Sydney was closed as a fire started in the Blue Mountains about 55 miles west of the city.

In the intense heat, flames leaped 200 feet in the air and oil-filled eucalyptus trees exploded.

Sandra Johansen said she, her husband and a friend were trapped in their home in Glenorie while, just outside, five firefighters huddled inside their fire truck as flames raged around them.

All were saved when two more firefighters appeared and carried the eight to safety in another vehicle.

``They are our guardian angels - they saved all of our lives,'' Johansen said.