SYDNEY – Many Australians were experiencing a bittersweet break from the threat of bush fires on Thursday, with flooding rains deluging some parts of the eastern states and a tropical cyclone forecast to hit the country’s northwest over the weekend.
The Bureau of Meteorology issued severe thunderstorm warnings for the southeast Queensland state and a flood alert for more than 20 areas in New South Wales after the start of heavy rainfall that is expected to continue for several days.
Cricket Australia said a bush-fire fundraising match that was set to be played in Sydney on Saturday had to be rescheduled for Melbourne on Sunday because of the rain.
Warm, moist air feeding in from the east was bringing the rain, BOM forecaster Mike Funnell told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.
“We are expecting those larger totals and heavier rainfall to come into the northeast coast of NSW and then sort of track slowly southwards.”
A tropical low off the Kimberley coast in Western Australia state was forecast to develop into a category three cyclone that could hit the Pilbara region, Australia’s iron ore producing heartland, on Saturday.
The wet weather has helped douse or slow some of the country’s most damaging and long-running wildfires, which have burned through more than 11.7 million hectares (2.8 million acres) of land since September. The prolonged fire season has killed 33 people and an estimated 1 billion native animals. More than 2,500 homes have been destroyed.
Officials have warned the threat is not yet over and there will likely be weeks more of firefighting ahead.
Around 60 fires were still burning across NSW and Victoria, the country’s most populous states, with around half of those classified as uncontained.
One cattle farmer, Donald Graham, and his wife, Bronwyn, had long feared fires would destroy their home, a remote property overlooking the Snowy River National Park, and installed two concrete bunkers on their property in December 2018, a year before devastating fires would roar up the nearby gullies.
“We thought it was just a matter of time, that definitively there would be a fire,” said Graham, 68.
When the fires ripped through Buchan, a small farming community in eastern Victoria on Dec. 30, they bellowed in on three fronts. Farmer Jeff McCole described the fires as “unfightable” and said that all he and other “dumbfounded” residents could do was “just stand there and watch.”
The Grahams saw the fires sweep across the bush from the north and the west, roaring loudly, whipped up by strong winds.
“It was very hot and smoky and the air was filled with embers, and the trees were all alight, not flaming but glowing,” recalled Graham, “It looked like Christmas all around us in a sense, Christmas lights in the trees, but of course it wasn’t.”
Taking cheese and Vegemite sandwiches with them, the couple climbed down into their bunker, where they had already placed heirlooms and water.
Tall enough for a man to stand and designed to shelter six people, the bunker is covered with a mound of earth, and the only thing visible from above is its large metal door.
Watching from a peephole, the couple saw their home consumed by flames, flattened into a scatter of bricks, china and warped metal.
As the fire roared over, the Grahams estimated they were inside for about 15 to 20 sweltering minutes, before they emerged to spent the next few hours fighting a fire threatening their shed.
Just before dawn, with the air filled with thick sepia-colored smoke, they crawled into their pick-up truck and turned on the air conditioning, exhausted but alive.