Australia fires: Seven dead, hundreds of homes destroyed

Jan. 1 (UPI) — Bushfires raging in eastern Australia have killed at least seven people and destroyed more than 200 properties since Monday, authorities said.

Firefighters in New South Wales have been battling blazes for months during a prolonged fire season and as of early Wednesday, more than 2,500 firefighters were trying to contain 112 fires that burned throughout the state, several large and dangerous, the NSW Rural Fire Service said.

NSW police said three bodies were found Wednesday morning, increasing the death toll to seven in the past three days.

Among the victims are two people who were found in separate vehicles, a father and son who were found dead on their property, two bodies found separately outside and a volunteer firefighter who died when the truck he was riding in flipped due to winds caused by the blazes.

NSW RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said he expects the death toll to increase.

“The preliminary advice is that we will, sadly, see the number of people, the number of lives lost, that will climb this afternoon,” he said.

Police said two NSW residents, a 72-year-old man and a 70-year-old woman, were missing.

Of the properties destroyed, 43 were in Victoria’s East Gippsland and 176 were in NSW, according to local authorities.

The NSW RFS said 916 homes have been destroyed and 363 have been damaged by fires this season.

News of the deaths comes as officials prepare for conditions to further deteriorate in NSW and western Sydney as temperatures are forecast to climb and winds are expected to pick up by the weekend.

Rob Rogers, NSW RFS deputy commissioner, told reporters that conditions on Saturday could be worse than they were on New Year’s Eve.

“There is every potential that the conditions on Saturday will be as bad or worse than we saw yesterday,” he said, adding “crews are working hard to get some containment before Saturday but we are concerned about that fire because of its potential run into far western Sydney.”

Meanwhile, Vice Adm. Michael Noonan, chief of the Royal Australian Navy, said two Navy ships have been deployed from Sydney to provide support to bushfire relief efforts.

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