Australia remains on high alert as wildfires burn on
A record-breaking heatwave and high winds across southeastern Australia have produced some of the worst fire conditions ever seen in the country, with blazes destroying thousands of hectares of land and threatening properties, but – so far – sparing lives.
Emergency teams battled more than 130 fires across New South Wales (NSW), the country’s most populous state, yesterday, with at least 40 burning out of control. Fires also continued to burn in Tasmania, after weekend blazes destroyed more than 20,000 hectares of land and dozens of properties.
Temperatures in some areas surpassed 45 degrees, while Monday’s average high across the country set a new record at 40.3 degrees. Further record-breaking highs are expected in the coming days, with the heat so intense that Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology has been forced to add new colours to its temperature map.
The NSW rural fire service issued “catastrophic” fire warnings for four areas in NSW – the most severe level possible.
“The word catastrophic is being used for good reason,” Australian prime minister Julia Gillard said on morning television. “So it is very important that people keep themselves safe, that they listen to local authorities and local warnings. This is a very dangerous day.”
In the town of Tarcutta, 470km (290 miles) southwest of Sydney, designated as a “catastrophic” area, residents took refuge in the Returned Services League – a veterans’ charity – as the fire approached.
Gwen Brown told ABC radio people were extremely anxious. “I’ve lived through a few things, but this is probably the scariest I’ve seen. I can tell you we are just covered in smoke. There’s blue smoke and it is prominent. It would only be a couple hundred metres away,” she said.
By night, Tarcutta residents were able to return home, but emergency services warned them to remain alert. Fires continued to burn in the area.
South of Sydney, near the town of Cooma, the gateway to Australia’s ski slopes, a huge cloud of black smoke rose above the surrounding mountains. Winds gusted at up to 70km an hour, driving out-of-control fires close to properties. Thousands of people had been warned via text message to evacuate.
“I got a phone call at 7am to say that the fire was going to impact our property,” Peter Evan told ABC. “We went straight out thinking that we’d mow around the house and make sure the tractor had fuel in it to make a fire break. Then we got the message to clear out.
“I’ve never been in a situation , so it’s frightening. The smoke – you couldn’t believe the smoke!”
The rural fire service’s commissioner, Shane Fitzsimmons, said the state had faced some of the worst conditions on record. “We’ve had a horrible day. We’ve seen firefighters and fire-affected communities facing the worst imaginable conditions.”
Mr Fitzsimmons praised the “extraordinary” firefighting effort in “dirty, hot, difficult conditions”.
In Sydney, temperatures soared to 42.3 degrees by early afternoon. Thousands flocked to beaches and pools, and national parks around the city were closed.
Blaze at nuclear plant
The blistering heat also caused a blaze at a nuclear research facility in southern Sydney after cabling overheated in a nearby electricity substation. Thousands of homes in the north of the city experienced power outages due to soaring demand.
In Tasmania, where dozens of homes in the southeast were destroyed by fire, emergency crews continued to fight 40 blazes, several out of control. A hundred people were still unaccounted for, but many are thought to be tourists who may have already moved out of the area. – (Guardian service)