57 fires scorch eastern Australia; state of emergency declared

Posted at 8:16 AM, Oct 20, 2013
and last updated 2013-10-20 08:16:59-04

(CNN) — At least 57 bush fires are raging in eastern Australia, including 14 that aren’t contained, officials said.

The unrelenting blazes have now scorched more than 109,000 hectares (269,000 acres) in eastern Australia, said Matt Sun, spokesman for the New South Wales Rural Fire Service.

The situation is so bad that New South Wales Premier Barry O’Farrell declared a state of emergency for the state, which includes Sydney. The declaration gives firefighters special authority as conditions worsen.

“These powers include the right to order the public to leave or to enter an area, the right to shore up or demolish a building, and of course it also prevents people from disobeying an order given under these powers,” O’Farrell said Sunday.

About 1,300 firefighters were tackling the blazes Sunday evening.

At least one fatality has been reported. Walter Lindner, 63, died of a suspected heart attack on Friday while defending his home against a blaze on the New South Wales Central Coast, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported.

Lindner collapsed while working alongside his neighbor to save his heritage-listed homestead, according to ABC.

Authorities say one of the blazes, the Springwood fire, destroyed at least 193 homes and damaged another 109. In the Mount Victoria fire, seven homes have been destroyed and one damaged, the New South Wales Rural Fire Service said in a statement (PDF).

On Saturday, fire officials said two of the dozens of bush fires burning out of control in New South Wales were sparked by power lines that had been buffeted by strong winds.

Fire investigators were still looking into the cause of the other fires.

Earlier, authorities said they were trying to determine whether one of the fires was caused by a military training exercise. A huge blaze near Lithgow, New South Wales, started October 16 when officials “were conducting an explosive ordnance training activity,” the Australian Department of Defense said.

Investigators were trying to determine whether the two events are linked.

CNN’s Kevin Wang contributed to this report.

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