Victoria, Australia – Australia’s military on Thursday rushed to help battlebushfires that threaten to merge into a giant fire-front ahead of whatauthorities said could be one of the most dangerous weekends for blazes in thecountry’s south.
Army bulldozers and fuel tankers were sent to Victoria state in the country’ssoutheast, where 1,800 firefighters are struggling to contain 50 blazes, mostlyburning in the rugged, inaccessible mountains of the Victorian Alps.
An urgent call for help was also sent to New Zealand and Victorian statePremier Steve Bracks said he hoped about 40 remote-area specialist firefighterswould arrive ahead of four days in which temperatures were tipped to soar to 40degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit).
“It is a critical time now, but it is more critical as we approach thisweekend,” Bracks told reporters. “It’s going to be one of our mostdifficult fire weekends in the history of this state.”
Firefighters say Australia faces an extreme fire danger this summer after aworsening drought left rural areas bone dry. Scientists fear climate change willbring more frequent higher temperatures and less rainfall to the country.
Authorities said the blazes stretching 150 kilometres (93 miles) from thecentral King Valley to the southern coast could destroy more than 600,000hectares (1.4 million acres) in coming days as fires merged in the face ofstrong winds.
A 25-kilometre-wide smoke plume covered Australia’s east coast in photostaken from space and shown in newspapers.
Prime Minister John Howard promised Bracks whatever help was needed to fightthe fires.
“The situation in Victoria is very serious indeed,” Howard told thenation’s parliament.
Fire authority spokesman Greg Leach said at least seven towns were underimmediate threat.
“We had a number of larger fires merge overnight. We’ve had 10 years ofdrought in Victoria and the forests are extremely dry, and we are seeing firebehaviour that we haven’t witnessed before,” Leach said.
In neighbouring New South Wales there was some relief with the discovery thatlarge fires burning there had not destroyed one of the healthiest remainingcolonies of koalas in the country, as earlier feared.
Leach said three houses had been destroyed in Victoria and residents in Dargo,Licola, Bairnsdale and Maffra towns would have to decide whether to flee orfight approaching blazes.
The Dargo blaze had linked with another to form a front stretching more than15 kilometres.
In January 2005, the deadliest bushfires in 22 years killed nine people inSouth Australia.
Four people were killed and 530 homes destroyed in Canberra in 2003. Thatsame year, bushfires fuelled by drought ravaged a slice of Australia three timesthe size of Britain.
Over the past 40 years, more than 250 people have been killed in bushfires inAustralia.