Cooler weather, drizzle help to ease Australia wildfires

AP, AFP-JIJI

Firefighters battling dozens of wildfires in Australia’s most populous state on Tuesday merged two of the most worrying blazes in a bid to reduce the threat of a more unpredictable inferno taking hold.

There had been fears that three of the fires near the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, would join to create a massive, erratic wall of fire that would be difficult to control. So firefighters struck first, combining two of the fires into one that is easier to manage and contain.

Cooler temperatures, calmer winds and a light drizzle were giving thousands of firefighters a reprieve in fighting the blazes Tuesday.

Still, officials said the threat had not completely evaporated, as the weather was expected to heat back up on Wednesday.

“We cannot afford for complacency or a lull, as welcome as any relief in weather conditions are,” New South Wales Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said.

Crews made up largely of volunteers had worked through the night along trails in heavily forested areas west of Sydney to try to prevent the fires becoming one out-of-control “mega-fire” that could race toward a third blaze nearby.

Firefighters have been battling wildfires across the state of New South Wales since they flared in high winds and searing heat last week, with more than 200 homes destroyed so far and many others damaged.

In the state’s worst fire emergency in almost 50 years, dozens of blazes have been extinguished or contained but 60 are still alight and 14 of them deemed out of control.

The Blue Mountains, a popular tourist area, is the main focus of concerns owing to a huge fire in the Lithgow area with a perimeter of 314 km.

Fitzsimmons said the two fires were “deliberately and tactically joined” through backburning — a tactic aimed at creating firebreaks to control the path of blazes.

“That is principally focused on trying to stop those two fires coming together and joining with the fire down at Springwood and Winmalee,” he said, referring to a blaze that razed 200 houses last week and which has flared again.

“We are seeing positive results of these very deliberate, very targeted, very decisive strategies being deployed particularly in relation to backburning operations.”

The decision to merge the edges of the infernos near Lithgow and Mount Victoria in the Blue Mountains is aimed at starving the fires of the fuel that would otherwise have allowed them to become the mega-fire authorities were fearing Monday.

But while firefighters — 1,100 worked through the night, aided by 84 fire-bombing aircraft — have had “some extraordinary success,” Fitzsimmons warned “there’s still a way to go.”

While claiming some success, with the Lithgow area fire downgraded one notch to a “watch and act” from the highest level “emergency,” it continued to threaten properties near the township of Bell and other villages.

“I plead with people: don’t be complacent,” said Fitzsimmons.

In addition to the fires west of Sydney, large tracts of the state remain at risk and under total fire bans.

Wildfires are common in Australia’s summer months from December to February. But an unusually dry and warm winter and record spring temperatures has seen the 2013-14 fire season start early with warnings of a long, tough summer ahead.