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Published:  23 July, 2008

By Max Allen

On New Year's Day, a vast cloud of smoke filled the sky above Pokolbin, at the heart of the Hunter Valley wine region, almost completely obscuring the midsummer midday sun. It was 40C in the shade (110F) with only 10% relative humidity, and the northwesterly winds were so fierce that venturing outside from the safety of an air-conditioned house felt like stepping into a fan-forced, smoke-filled oven. Although the thick brown smoke had been blown from an inferno raging in national parkland many kilometres to the north of the Upper Hunter, the most devastating bushfire emergency in New South Wales' history had come perilously close to the state's premier wine region. For the Hunter's longtime residents, memories of 1968 - the last time that fires claimed vineyards - came flooding back. Luckily, no Hunter vineyards or property have thus far been lost: although one large fire, deliberately lit by a teenage thrill-seeker, did flare up near Cessnock, the region's main town, it was eventually contained. The New South Wales fires, many of which were started by arsonists, began on Christmas Day and burned continuously to the north, south and west of Sydney until 6 January, when the state was blessed with a brief but heavy downpour, which extinguished many - but not all - of the flames. At the time of writing, over half a million hectares of bushland have been destroyed by fire. The crisis is not over yet, however. Despite the relief that came with the rain, firefighters who have travelled from all corners of this vast country to assist with the emergency are bracing themselves for more drama as the hot, dry weather is predicted to return.