Australia — Smoke from bushfires burning hundreds of kilometres awayblanketed Australia’s second largest city Melbourne on Saturday, delayingflights and setting off fire alarms at the city’s airport.
Water-bombing aircraft intended to help contain some of the 24 bushfires burningout of control in the southern state of Victoria were grounded because of thethick smoke.
Ambulance officials urged people with respiratory problems such as asthma tostay indoors and aviation officials warned pilots that visibility was down tofive kilometres (three miles).
“The conditions for today with all the smoke in the atmosphere areabsolutely terrible for people with asthma. It is imperative that they stayinside,” said an ambulance official.
The bushfires, most sparked by lightning strikes, have blackened almost180,000 hectares (450,000 acres) of land, mostly in rugged, inaccessiblemountains in the northeast of the state.
Firefighters fear the fires could sweep through some small country towns inVictoria’s highlands on Sunday as northerly winds pick up strength ahead of aforecast cool change.
Blazes stretching 150 kilometres (93 miles) from the central King Valley tothe Victorian coast could destroy more than 600,000 hectares (1.4 million acres)in coming days as fires merge in the face of strong northerly winds, authoritieshave said.
“The whole (weather) system has slowed down over the past 24 hours, butwe’re expecting it to hit tomorrow and when it does it will be severe,”said Stuart Ord from Victoria’s department of sustainability and environment.
“There is no doubt the fire will hit settlements tomorrow, the questionis which ones,” Ord told local media.
Army reinforcements have been sent to Victoria state to help more than 2,000local and New Zealand firefighters.
Firefighters say Australia faces an extreme fire danger this summer after adrought that has turned many rural areas into tinder boxes. Scientists fearclimate change will bring more frequent higher temperatures and less rainfall tothe country.
Bushfires are a regular feature of Australia’s summer. In January 2005, thedeadliest bushfires in 22 years killed nine people in South 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.