SYDNEY, Australia – Walls of flames 100 feet high swept through parched eucalyptus forests Sunday as several fires raged out of control in southeastern Australia, injuring one man and destroying several homes and seven fire vehicles.
Dozens of people fled their homes north of Sydney — some using boats — as hundreds of firefighters battled flames lapping the edges of the city. Authorities closed the main freeway heading north from the city as a huge pall of gray smoke drifted across the area.
Three houses were destroyed near Woy Woy, nearly 40 miles north of Sydney, the New South Wales state Rural Fire Service said.
Elsewhere, a wildfire destroyed five houses and blackened nearly 60,000 acres in Junee, 180 miles southwest of Sydney. A man was hospitalized with burns to 60 percent of his body.
Dozens of fires burned across New South Wales state, fanned by hot dry winds from the Australian Outback as temperatures reached 111 degrees in Sydney — the hottest New Year's Day on record for the city.
Several blazes north of the city merged into one "very fast-moving fire," consuming seven firefighters' vehicles, Rural Fire Service spokesman Cameron Wade told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.
Rebel Talbert, a spokeswoman for the fire service, said the fires appeared to be man-made, though whether "that's deliberate or accidental really remains to be seen." There had been no lightening strikes, she told Nine News.
Late Sunday, hundreds of firefighters were pulled back from the flames and deployed to protect homes as a cold front moved toward the region, bringing gusts of more than 60 miles per hour and causing extremely dangerous conditions, Rural Fire Service Commissioner Phil Koperberg told reporters.
Water bombing by helicopters also was forced to stop at nightfall.
A change in wind direction sent thick black smoke and glowing embers toward the village of Kariong, home to hundreds of people, but there were no immediate reports of damage. Some 170 firefighters were patrolling the village protecting homes.
Earlier, Koperberg warned that if winds turned the fires to the north, many more homes would be under threat.
"But if everyone does what they're told, hopefully we should get to tomorrow morning with very few losses," he said.
In neighboring Victoria state, rain helped hundreds of firefighters control a blaze that destroyed five homes Saturday night at Stawell, a town of 8,000 people 150 miles west of Melbourne.
Michael Creighton at Woy Woy Leagues Club, which was acting as a makeshift evacuation center, said several families were sheltering there amid uncertainty about the fate of their homes.
"I don't think today anybody knows whose house has gone," he told Sky News.