Australians Set Backburns to Slow Fires

SYDNEY, Australia (AP) -- A fire roared up a mountain valley west of Sydney on Sunday, gutting two homes next to a historic hotel, but frantic efforts by dozens of firefighters and 11 waterbombing aircraft managed to spare the hotel.

Staff and guests were told to congregate downstairs at the rambling art deco Hydro-Majestic Hotel, but they were not forced to evacuate. Perched on a ridge above the scenic Megalong Valley, the near 100-year-old resort and spa is one of the best known landmarks in the Blue Mountains, about 55 miles west of Sydney.

New South Wales Rural Fire Service chief Phil Koperberg said two homes were destroyed or damaged nearby, but the hotel itself was spared ``as the result of some pretty fierce firefighting.''

By Sunday evening, the threat had receded as temperatures and wind speeds dropped.

The latest devastation brought to 50 the number of homes destroyed since fires erupted around Sydney on Wednesday. Two elderly men have died and 250,000 acres of land have been scorched across New South Wales state.

Earlier, thousands of emergency workers fought fire with fire to contain major blazes ringing the city of 4 million.

Firefighters used Sunday's moderate weather to light controlled fires -- known as backburns -- in underbrush and grassland near the blazes to reduce the amount of natural fuel available to feed the flames.

More than 70 wildfires were burning across the eastern state of New South Wales. The most dangerous were around Sydney, the state capital, which was ringed with a thick haze of smoke.

Expected hot, dry winds from the northwest failed to blow up Sunday, giving hope to the 4,500 mostly volunteer firefighters that they could build defenses against the blazes.

Cooler moisture-laden winds from the ocean were forecast to bring scattered rain on Monday.

``By tomorrow, we should see this crisis begin to ease considerably,'' Koperberg said. ``We're nearing the end of this particular fire crisis.''

Fire service spokesman Cameron Wade said fires on Sydney's southern and western fringes had been either fully or almost fully contained by backburning operations overnight Saturday.

Each Southern Hemisphere summer, searing heat often tops 104 degrees and hot winds from Australia's arid interior fan firestorms along the continent's heavily populated coastal fringe.

But a drought affecting almost 90 percent of Australia has made this year's bush fire season one of the worst in decades. Some of the fires are also believed to have been started by arsonists, or by careless smokers throwing cigarette butts out of car windows.

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