Australia races against clock to tame wildfires

126 blazes still raging in New South Wales as mercury gets set to spike

AFP-JIJI

Australian firefighters were racing against the clock to bring a series of blazes under control Thursday before a forecast spike in temperatures brings the risk of more infernos.

Fires have been raging across Australia for nearly a week and while many have been contained, 126 are still burning and at least 15 remain out of control in the country’s most populous state, New South Wales, in the southeast.

Emergency crews were also still battling to keep an out-of-control wildfire from spreading to a former weapons range littered with unexploded bombs. The 5,840-hectare Deans Gap blaze south of Sydney was burning just 2 km from the Tianjara Plateau, which was used by Australia’s army as a practice bombing range until the mid-1970s.

A cooler weather front that brought some relief Wednesday continued in many parts Thursday, but temperatures are set to soar once again to well above 40 degrees Celsius on Friday, piling pressure on firefighters.

New South Wales Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said crews were working flat out on containment efforts before the heat returned.

“It’s about focusing on getting as much contained and consolidated as we can ahead of a return to hotter and dryer conditions dominating much of New South Wales over the coming days,” Fitzsimmons told Australia’s ABC television. “We’re looking at temperatures across much of (the state) into the low-to-mid 40s and extending into the high 40s on Saturday. The only reprieve, if you can call it that, is that we are not expecting significant wind strengths to build.

“But it is almost academic. With such hot, dry and dominant (weather) movement from the northwest, even a moderate breeze is going to be problematic and risky for communities and firefighters over the weekend.”

The blazes have scorched around 350,000 hectares of land in New South Wales alone, but while more than 100 homes were razed in the island state of Tasmania last weekend, only a handful have been destroyed nationwide since. No deaths have been reported yet.

The biggest impact has been on farmers, with vast amounts of pasture, crops and animal feed lost, as well as thousands of head of livestock and agricultural infrastructure, such as sheds and outbuildings.

One of the worst-hit areas is the Yass district west of Canberra where a fire has so far burnt nearly 16,000 hectares and killed 10,000 sheep.

“Great work by fire crews, supported by aircraft, has slowed the progress of the fire,” an emergency official said. “Residents are still urged to remain vigilant and . . . well prepared as temperatures rise during the day.”

In addition to New South Wales, fires continue to burn in the southeastern states of Victoria and Tasmania, as well as in the state of Queensland in the northeast.

Wildfires are a fact of life in arid Australia, where 173 people died in the 2009 Black Saturday firestorm, the nation’s worst natural disaster in modern times.

Most are ignited naturally, but three teenage boys were charged with deliberately lighting a fire Tuesday west of Sydney. And on Wednesday, a man was charged after sparks from his angle grinder caused a blaze.

Police said sparks from the power tool on his property near Mudgee, northwest of Sydney, ignited nearby grass. The ensuing fire has so far destroyed 140 hectares of farmland and was still burning as of Thursday afternoon.

In Tasmania, residents of the fishing village of Dunalley — where 90 homes and businesses were destroyed — could be allowed back home Friday, a spokesperson for the police said.