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Military exercise lit Australian wildfires

| Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2013, 9:42 p.m.

SYDNEY — Fire officials defended Australia's defense department on Thursday as investigators revealed a military training exercise ignited the largest of the wildfires that have torn across the nation's most populous state over the past week.

The Rural Fire Service said Wednesday that one of the more than 100 fires that have burned since last week began at a Defense Department training area as a result of “live ordnance exercises.”

The fire it sparked near the city of Lithgow, west of Sydney, has burned 180 square miles and destroyed several houses, but no injuries or deaths were reported in the blaze.

In a statement, Acting Defense Minister George Brandis said the military was cooperating with investigators.

Rural Fire Service commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said the defense department's actions were obviously an accident.

“It wasn't deliberate; it was a side effect of a routine activity, it would appear, and clearly there was no intention to see fire start up and run as a result of that activity,” Fitzsimmons said. “There is no conspiracy here.”

The fires have killed one man and destroyed more than 200 homes in New South Wales state over the past week. Sixty-five fires were still burning Thursday, with 24 out of control, though all emergency warnings had been lifted.

Meanwhile, officials said an aircraft helping fight a fire near Ulladulla, south of Sydney, crashed on Thursday morning. The fire service said it had no details, including whether anyone was injured, and that rescue crews were headed to the scene.

The major wildfire threat had passed on Thursday, as cooler temperatures and calm winds prevailed and hundreds of residents returned to homes they had evacuated earlier.

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