Sunday 26 January 2020

Australian megafire spreads as bid to stop it fuels flames

Unstoppable: A blaze consumes bush country near Mount Tomah in New South Wales. Photo: Reuters
Unstoppable: A blaze consumes bush country near Mount Tomah in New South Wales. Photo: Reuters

Byron Kaye

A backburning operation intended to contain a massive wildfire in eastern Australia has gone out of control, damaging buildings and cutting off major roads as the country heads into another heatwave that may topple temperature records.

The accident occurred about 250km northwest of Sydney, where firefighters were trying to stop a blaze of some 934,000 acres reaching communities by employing pre-emptive controlled burning.

"We saw a dramatic shift in conditions, a flare-up of fire, some extraordinary behaviour of that fire, and that fire has spread," New South Wales Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said.

Dozens of buildings were destroyed in the area, Mr Fitzsimmons added, although he did not give an exact figure. There were no new reports of casualties.

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Wildfires have killed at least four people, destroyed more than 680 homes and burned nearly three million acres of bushland across eastern Australia since the start of November. Bushfires are common in the country's hot, dry summers, but the ferocity and early arrival of the fires in the southern spring is unprecedented. Experts have said climate change has left bushland tinder-dry.

Spot fires that would normally be contained on their own have been fanned by wind, coming together into what authorities have called megafires to Sydney's north, west and south, prompting evacuations and sporadically shrouding the country's biggest city in smoke.

The Bureau of Meteorology warned of severe to extreme heatwaves in the inland parts of the country's south-east, with temperatures expected to approach or exceed a national average record of 40.3C.

"We saw significant heat build over Western Australia over the course of last week, and that heat is now pushing east over the continent, which is going to lead to several days of exceptional heat," said bureau climatologist Blair Trewin.

"We're closely monitoring the development and progression of this heat but based on current forecasts we could see that record broken this week."

Mr Fitzsimmons said the heat would exacerbate fire danger, and "despite the very best efforts of everyone, we're not going to be able to contain these fires that we're expecting later in the week".

A heatwave is set to encompass much of Australia for most of the coming week, with severe heat warnings in place for a huge swathe of the country. Extreme warnings have been issued for eastern Western Australia and South Australia.

Southeast Queensland is having a scorcher, with Bureau of Meteorology forecaster Kimba Wong saying several temperature records have been broken.

Brisbane hit 41.2C yesterday, equalling the city's hottest December day on record, last broken in 1981.

Amberley in the west of Brisbane reached 43.1C, with 43C in Laidley and 42C in Esk.

"Gatton reached 43.2C and their previous maximum of 42.6C was only set last week," said Mr Wong.

As the heat sets in once again, the fire danger risks increase and coincide with the raging bushfires.

Richard Thornton, chief executive of the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Co-operative Research Centre, said it was a very early start to the fire season.

Irish Independent

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