SYDNEY — As 2,000 firefighters in the state of New South Wales battled the region's worst bush fires in more than 40 years, students at Catholic schools found themselves caught in the drama.

In Springwood, St. Thomas Aquinas primary school was evacuated Oct. 17. Principal Sergio Rosato led students and staff more than two miles to safety as his own home was destroyed by fire.

St. Thomas Aquinas Church sustained minor damage from a small ember fire.

Students and staff of nearby St. Columba's High School initially were instructed by fire authorities to shelter in place, and the historic Elmhurst house, part of the former seminary, was destroyed.

On Oct. 20, New South Wales Premier Barry O'Farrell declared a 30-day state of emergency, which affords special powers to emergency services, as bush fires raged north, south and west of Sydney.

More than 56 bush fires, including 12 uncontained, were still burning the morning of Oct. 21. More than 200 homes in the Blue Mountains had been destroyed, and the number was expected to rise as high winds and temperatures in the high 80s and low 90s were forecast.

"A lot of our parishioners have lost their homes," said Springwood parish office administrator Chris Joy. "It's like nothing I've ever seen."

At St. Finbar's Parish in Glenbrook, Father Wim Hoekstra praised local teachers and thanked firefighters for their efforts in the face of the "devastating fire."

"Everyone really supported each other and helped each other," he said. "The firies (firefighters) have been terrific."

The St. Vincent de Paul Society launched a fundraising appeal to support those affected by the fires.

"Vinnies members live and work in these communities, which means we will be there for the long haul, helping people rebuild their lives in any way possible for as long as they need, but we can only do that with the generous support of the public," said the St. Vincent de Paul state council president, Ray Reynolds.

Pope Francis sent his blessing to the people of New South Wales through the Vatican secretary of state, Archbishop Pietro Parolin, Oct. 19.

Pope Francis "prays especially for those who have died and for those who have lost their homes and workplaces, as well as for the numerous personnel working to combat the fires and to provide care and comfort for those who are suffering," the statement said.