By Maggie Lu Yueyang
SYDNEY, Oct 23 (Reuters) - Thousands of Australians were urged to evacuate their homes on Wednesday as dry winds threatened to fan a firestorm in mountainous bushland around Sydney, where firefighters battled to control blazes which have been raging for a week.
More than 200 homes have been destroyed in New South Wales (NSW) state since last Thursday, when bushfires tore through Sydney's outskirts, razing entire streets. One man died from a heart attack while trying to save his home.
Wednesday's fire conditions were shaping up as the worst so far, prompting authorities to warn of more property losses and advise residents of the Blue Mountains west of Sydney to abandon their homes.
"If you don't have a plan, let me give you one," NSW Emergency Minister Michael Gallacher said. "Get into the car, drive down to the city metropolitan area and let the firefighters do what they can do to protect the community, should this turn for the worse."
Temperatures in the Blue Mountains, a popular weekend getaway for Sydneysiders, are expected to reach up to 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit). In Sydney itself they could hit 35 degrees Celsius (95 Fahrenheit).
There were 59 fires burning across the state on Wednesday, with 19 out of control, according to the RFS. Over 2,000 firefighters were battling the blazes across a vast area, backed by 95 helicopters and reinforcements from other states.
Hot, dry winds gusting up to 80 kmph (48 mph) forced water bombing helicopters to suspend operations just as the danger reached its peak on Wednesday afternoon. Light rain overnight had hampered efforts to backburn and create fire-breaks.
"We are entering what is typically the hottest and driest period of any given day," Rural Fire Service (RFS) Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said.
"The temperatures are climbing and are expected to climb and maintain their peak throughout the coming hours. The worse of the weather is still to come."
Authorities ordered all schools in the Blue Mountains to be closed, evacuated nursing homes and advised people living in the area to leave before conditions deteriorated.
"It's very quiet up here. A lot of people we know have already left to stay with families down in western Sydney," Blue Mountains resident Rebecca Southern told Reuters by telephone.
The Blue Mountains, whose foothills extend down to western Sydney suburbs like Penrith, are populated with a mix of farmers, small business owners and white-collar commuters who make the trip into the city every day. Their spectacular escarpments, dense eucalyptus forests and scattered towns are popular with tourists but a nightmare for firefighters.
The NSW government has declared a state of emergency enabling it to order evacuations, hoping to avoid a repeat of the 2009 "Black Saturday" fires in Victoria state that killed 173 people and caused $4.4 billion worth of damage.
The insurance council of Australia said claims of more than A$93 million ($90 million) were expected to grow as wildfires - stretching across 1,600 kilometres (1,000 miles) of Australia's most populous state - ran their course.
Police have arrested several children suspected of starting a number of different fires. Other fires were sparked by power lines arcing in strong winds, according to the fire service.
Record hot and dry weather across the continent and an early start to the fire season in the Southern Hemisphere spring have revived arguments about mankind's impact on climate change.
Climate scientists say Australia is one of the countries most at risk from global warming, with fires, floods and droughts that are already a feature of the continent likely to get worse.
But Prime Minister Tony Abbott has rejected any link between the Sydney fires and rising carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, a major Australian export.
"Climate change is real and we should take strong action against it," Abbott told local radio.
"But these fires are certainly not a function of climate change, they are just a function of life in Australia."
Elected in September, Abbott plans to repeal the carbon tax installed by former prime minister Julia Gillard and replace it with a "Direct Action" scheme involving things like reforestation and financial incentives to business to cut pollution.
UN Framework Convention on Climate Change Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres this week accused Abbott's government of abandoning Australia's commitment to emissions reductions.