Australian firefighters work to contain massive wildfires

More than 200 homes destroyed in New South Wales as more hot weather forecast

The remains of a possum can be seen on the edge of a water tank after a bushfire passed through the area in the Blue Mountains suburb of Winmalee, located around 70 km west of Sydney. Photograph:<EN>David Gray/Reuters

The remains of a possum can be seen on the edge of a water tank after a bushfire passed through the area in the Blue Mountains suburb of Winmalee, located around 70 km west of Sydney. Photograph:David Gray/Reuters

Tue, Oct 22, 2013, 07:06

Australian firefighters worked desperately today to try and contain a series of massive wildfires burning in mountains west of Sydney ahead of the return of dangerously hot, windy weather forecast for tomorrow.

More than 200 homes have been destroyed in New South Wales (NSW) state since last Thursday, when fires tore through farm and bush land and scattered communities on Sydney’s outskirts, razing entire streets.

The insurance council of Australia said claims of more than A$93 million (€66 million) were expected to grow and the NSW government has declared a state of emergency.

Australia wildfires threaten Sydney

One man died of a suspected heart attack last week while trying to defend his home from a fire north of Sydney. Air pollution in parts of Sydney spiked today to dangerously high levels as smoke and ash blanketed the city.

Some 60 fires were still burning today, with the largest and most dangerous in the Blue Mountains around 100km west of Sydney, New South Wales Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons told reporters.

Thousands of firefighters, hundreds of fire engines and 90 aircraft were battling the blazes, which have burned through more than 120,000 hectares and have a perimeter of 1,600km, he said.

With steep terrain carpeted by tinder dry eucalyptus forests and dotted with small communities, the Blue Mountains are a popular day trip from Sydney, but its rugged and often inaccessible terrain can become a fire nightmare during the long, hot Southern Hemisphere summer.

“You are talking about some of the most beautiful, scenic country in the world but it is an awful challenge for fire fighting and fire management,” said Mr Fitzsimmons.

Efforts had been concentrating on back-burning vegetation to reduce the fuel available for the fires, bulldozing containment lines, and merging two large fires into a single blaze that would be easier to control.

Winds were light, temperatures were cool and patchy light rain was falling today, but those benign conditions were not expected to last. A storm cell was moving towards the region, while strong, dry westerly winds gusting to 80kmph and temperatures in the mid-30 degree Celsius range are predicted for tomorrow. “Tomorrow I’m hoping it’s not going to be as bad as everyone is forecasting, but I understand they have to give us the worst possible scenario too,” Blue Mountains resident Daniela Fullagar told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Police arrested two boys suspected of starting fires in the Hunter Valley north of Sydney. With dry weather and a massive land area, Australia is particularly prone to brushfires.

In 2009, the “Black Saturday” wildfires in Victoria state killed 173 people and caused $4.4 billion worth of damage.

New South Wales has just experienced the warmest September and warmest 12 months on record, according to the Bureau of Meteorology.

Reuters