Australia bush fires rage on; more hot weather is in the forecast

Australia bush fires rage on; more hot weatheris in the forecast

18 January 2007

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Australia — Australia’s second most-populous state is in the grip of one ofthe worst bush fire seasons in recorded history, and the government of Victoriais warning that with more hot weather on the way the situation is likely to getworse before it gets better.

“This is the worst bush fire conditions we have ever had in Victoria’shistory because it is going to go on, and it is going to get worse,” thestate’s premier, Steve Bracks, said yesterday, after cutting short his holidayto take control of the crisis.

Horses stood clear as a fire burned through a shed Tuesday in Victoria, Australia. There have been no confirmed fatalities from the most recent fires, but eight houses have been destroyed

More than a million hectares, or almost 2.5 million acres, of forest andfarmland in the southeastern state have already been burned, and some 200,000people were without power Tuesday after the fires brought down lines. Most hadpower restored by yesterday afternoon. Bracks warned that despite the 104 degreeheat, people should continue to conserve electricity.

“We are bracing ourselves for some very, very tough conditions,” hesaid.

There have been no confirmed fatalities from the most recent fires, but eighthouses have been destroyed. Seventy-five people died in Victoria and SouthAustralia during the 1983 Ash Wednesday blazes. Bracks said that the currentconditions were “the worst we have faced, but it’s the best prepared wehave been.”

Despite the efforts of about 3,000 firefighters, some using helicopters towater-bomb the advancing lines of flames, the fires were spreading north yesterday, crossing the state border into New South Wales. Tourists andresidents were being evacuated from areas of the Snowy Mountains, including theresort town of Thredbo.

Fire crews were using bulldozers to cut containment lines through the scruband forest in an attempt to stop the advance of the fires, while aircraft flewover a national park close to Thredbo to check for hikers and campers who mightnot have heard the evacuation warning.

Fire crews have been arriving from as far away as Canada, and a team from theUnited States was on its way.

Firefighters were particularly concerned about the fire that caused the powerfailure, which is centered on Tatong in eastern Victoria. “We are steeringand managing the fire; we can’t put it out,” said Pauline Clancy, speakingfor the Emergency Coordination Center at Victoria’s Department of Sustainabilityand Environment. The fire has now burned about 67,000 acres, 22,000 of them onTuesday night alone.

Some of the fires have been burning for more than a month, fueled by hightemperatures following some of the driest conditions on record. Australia is ina drought that has desiccated huge areas of farmland and forest across thenation, creating ideal conditions for the massive bush fires.

Most of the fires are the result of lightning strikes on the tinder-dry scrub,but some are alleged to have been started by arsonists, including one thatcombined with others to create the largest fire, which covers about 1.6 millionacres and has been burning since Dec. 1. That fire already has a front almost930 miles long and is still jumping containment lines.

Normally, the authorities set controlled fires in the winter so there is lessfuel during the summer. The state government said that for large areas ofVictoria, the winter was too dry to risk controlled burns.

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