By Colin Packham
SYDNEY (Reuters) – Torrential rains in eastern Australia could extinguish all remaining forest fires in the country's most populous state by the end of the week, officials said on Tuesday, raising hopes that a deadly national crisis is almost over. .
Australia has faced hundreds of fires since September, in an extraordinarily long summer season, fueled by three years of drought, which experts have attributed to climate change.
In recent days, heavy rains and storms have hit the state of New South Wales (NSW), which has been impacted by a crisis that has taken over several states and territories at its peak.
The rain has already extinguished two of the biggest and longest flames, and NSW officials hope that more rain forecasts for this week will extinguish the remaining 24 fires, four of which will burn "wildly".
"Everything is going well, everything will be contained and we hope to reach a stage where we can call them," said the NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) in an e-mailed statement.
The current situation is a long way from the height of the crisis in early January, when NSW firefighters were fighting nearly 150 fires that produced a front approximately 6,000 kilometers (3,700 miles) long.
Fires across the country have destroyed nearly 12 million hectares (29.7 million acres) of dry forest, killing 33 people and about 1 billion native animals since September. The fires destroyed thousands of homes and sparked mass evacuations of residents and tourists under apocalyptic red skies during the peak of Australia's summer vacation.
Hawkesbury City Mayor Barry Calvert said the massive fire at Gospers Mountain this week was a big relief.
"We have lived with this fire for four months," he told Reuters by telephone. "We were never able to relax. For several weeks, we all had our bags ready to evacuate, as the fire moved quickly in different directions, depending on how the wind changed."
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"The smoke would also knock you down, we were desperate for some clean air."
The welcome shower came as an early surprise. The Bureau of Meteorology in January said that sufficient rain to put out fires was unlikely until at least March.
In the neighboring state of Victoria, firefighters were fighting about 20 fires on Tuesday – below the peak of 60. Heavy rains were also expected in Victoria in the coming days, although officials expect it to subside, rather than extinguish, many of fires.
"The lower rainfall totals do not put out fires, they will allow them to be contained or controlled by firefighters in the near future," Tim Wiebusch, Victorian state response controller, told reporters in Melbourne.
In Queensland, which has also received heavy rain, only one fire is still burning, while nine fires are burning in southern Australia.
The rain, however, proved to be a double-edged sword. Nearly 60,000 families in NSW remained without electricity on Tuesday, with flash floods that bought power lines and trees. (Reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by Jane Wardell)