Monday 22 December 2014

Australian bushfire: New South Wales in state of emergency

With weather conditions deteriorating, there are fears one massive blaze could threaten the suburbs of Sydney itself

Published 20/10/2013 | 10:24

A New South Wales Rural Fire Service volunteer puts out a spot fire in the town of Bell, Australia, on Sunday, Oct. 20, 2013. Firefighters battling some of the most destructive wildfires to ever strike Australia's most populous state were focusing on a major blaze Sunday. Authorities warned that high temperatures and winds were likely to maintain heightened fire danger for days. (AP Photo/AAP Image/Paul Miller) NO ARCHIVING, AUSTRALIA OUT, NEW ZEALAND OUT, PAPUA NEW GUINEA OUT, SOUTH PACIFIC OUT, NO SALES
A New South Wales Rural Fire Service volunteer puts out a spot fire in the town of Bell, Australia
People look on as firefighters from New South Wales' Rural Fire Service (RFS) fight a fire at a property in Lithgow, New South Wales,
Firefighters from New South Wales' Rural Fire Service (RFS) arrive to put out a fire at a property in Lithgow, New South Wales, i
A helicopter releases water over bushfires in Lithgow, New South Wales,
A helicopter flies as smoke from bushfires in Lithgow, New South Wales,
An aerial view of smoke from bushfires in Lithgow, New South Wales,

A STATE OF of emergency has been declared in New South Wales as firefighters battle the worst bushfires seen in the state for “decades and decades”.

The declaration gives the Australian authorities special powers to deal with “whatever eventualities may arise”, the state’s premier Barry O’Farrell said.

For the next 30 days, firefighters will be able to force evacuations, demolish any building and order the public to leave or enter an area, with any attempt to prevent them doing so a criminal offence.

“We are planning for the worst, but hoping for the best,” Mr O’Farrell said.

The wildfires are some of the worst ever to strike Australia’s most populous state, and are expected to worsen as unseasonably high temperatures and strong winds make tackling them increasingly challenging.

There are also serious concerns that the three largest blazes, two in the Blue Mountains and one near the town of Lithgow, could combine to form one massive fire and threaten the suburbs of Sydney itself.

So far the fires have destroyed 208 homes, damaged another 122 and led to the death of one man – possibly due to a heart attack, the Rural Fire Service said.

Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said the weather was forecast to deteriorate further over Monday and Tuesday and, according to live crisis updates from the Sydney Morning Herald, appeared alongside Mr O’Farrell to say that you had to go back “decades and decades” to find comparable spring bushfires.

“The sorts of damage, destruction, loss and devastation that we've witnessed in the last 48 hours is typically aligned to what you would see in December of January, when we've seen the middle of the summer period and when we've seen our worst summer fire conditions.

“To find any parallel ... you've got to go back to the '68 fires ... what is fundamentally different today is that there are a hell of a lot more people settled across these at risk area than there was in the 50s and the 60s.”

Though wildfires are relatively common in Australia, they tend not to occur in large numbers until the summer. An unusually dry winter and hotter than average spring have created conditions which lend themselves to unseasonable blazes.

While firefighters try to stop the spread of some 15 fires which are still categorised as out of control, arson investigators are going through the process of trying to determine the origins of a number of suspicious blazes.

Meanwhile, the Defence Department is looking into the possible link between the start of the Lithgow fire – ranked as the most dangerous – and nearby military exercises involving explosives.

Both took place on Wednesday, and the department is “investigating if the two events are linked”, it said in a statement yesterday.

- Adam Whitnall,

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