Australian firefighters race to contain wildfires

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australian firefighters worked desperately on Tuesday to try and contain a series of massive wildfires burning in mountains west of Sydney ahead of the return of dangerously hot, windy weather forecast for Wednesday.

More than 200 homes have been destroyed in New South Wales (NSW) state since last Thursday, when fires tore through farm and bush land and scattered communities on Sydney's outskirts, razing entire streets.

The insurance council of Australia said claims of more than A$93 million ($90 million) were expected to grow and the NSW government has declared a state of emergency.

One man died of a suspected heart attack last week while trying to defend his home from a fire north of Sydney. Air pollution in parts of Sydney spiked on Tuesday to dangerously high levels as smoke and ash blanketed the city.

Some 60 fires were still burning on Tuesday, with the largest and most dangerous in the Blue Mountains around 100 km (62 miles) west of Sydney, New South Wales Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons told reporters.

Thousands of firefighters, hundreds of fire engines and 90 aircraft were battling the blazes, which have burned through more than 120,000 hectares (300,000 acres) and have a perimeter of 1,600 km (990 miles), he said.

With steep terrain carpeted by tinder dry eucalyptus forests and dotted with small communities, the Blue Mountains are a popular day trip from Sydney, but its rugged and often inaccessible terrain can become a fire nightmare during the long, hot Southern Hemisphere summer.

"You are talking about some of the most beautiful, scenic country in the world but it is an awful challenge for fire fighting and fire management," said Fitzsimmons.

Efforts had been concentrating on back-burning vegetation to reduce the fuel available for the fires, bulldozing containment lines, and merging two large fires into a single blaze that would be easier to control.

Winds were light, temperatures were cool and patchy light rain was falling on Tuesday, but those benign conditions were not expected to last.

A storm cell was moving towards the region, while strong, dry westerly winds gusting to 80 kmph (50 mph) and temperatures in the mid-30 degree Celsius (high-80 degree Fahrenheit) range are predicted for Wednesday.

"Tomorrow I'm hoping it's not going to be as bad as everyone is forecasting, but I understand they have to give us the worst possible scenario too," Blue Mountains resident Daniela Fullagar told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

Police arrested two boys suspected of starting fires in the Hunter Valley north of Sydney.

With dry weather and a massive land area, Australia is particularly prone to brushfires. In 2009, the "Black Saturday" wildfires in Victoria state killed 173 people and caused $4.4 billion (2.7 billion pounds) worth of damage.

New South Wales has just experienced the warmest September and warmest 12 months on record, according to the Bureau of Meteorology.

(Reporting by Lincoln Feast; Editing by Michael Perry)