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Australia wildfires could merge into 'megafire'

Wildfires in southeastern Australia could converge into one "megafire" if weather conditions worsen, authorities have warned. Firefighters are battling to contain the worst bushfires to hit New South Wales in decades.

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Bushfires in southeast Australia

Major fires ravaging the Blue Mountains west of Sydney are threatening to merge to form a massive blaze, the state's fire commissioner said Monday.

"I don't think I've ever used the word megafire," said New South Wales Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons.

"But the reality is that the modeling indicates that there's every likelihood that in the forecast weather conditions that these two fires, particularly up in the back end of the mountains, will merge at some point."

Firefighters spent the night building containment lines to prevent this from happening, with heat and winds set to intensify in the coming days. It is feared the worsening conditions could push the blaze to the populated tourist centers of Leura and Katoomba.

Worst wildfires in decades

The fires took hold on Thursday claiming the life of a 63-year-old man who died of a suspected heart attack while attempting to defend his home from the flames.

An estimated 58 fires - 14 of which remain out of control - have since destroyed more than 200 homes and burned through more than 100,000 hectares of land in the most serious fire disaster in the state in almost 50 years.

Among the worst hit has been the town of Lithgow where a blaze has already ravaged almost 40,000 hectares.

On Sunday New South Wales Premier Barry O'Farrell declared a state of emergency, announcing that authorities were "planning for the worst but hoping for the best."

"This is not an action taken lightly ... but it's important the Rural Fire Service and other emergency services have the powers and the resources they need to combat this threat," O'Farrell said.

The order gives emergency personnel the authority to force evacuations and close electricity networks.

Wildfires are common in Australia in summer, which commences in December in the southern hemisphere, but this year has seen the fire season start unseasonably early owing to an unusually dry and warm winter and record spring temperatures.

In February 2009, fires killed 173 people and destroyed more than 2,000 homes in the eastern state of Victoria.

ccp/kms (AFP, dpa)

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