Australians battling dozens of wildfires

Australians battling dozens of wildfires

7 February 2009

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Australia — Crews battled to contain dozens of wildfires across southeastern Australia on Saturday as temperatures soared to record levels and officials warned conditions were perfect for a deadly inferno.

At least 40 fires were blazing in New South Wales state, and more burned in Victoria and South Australia. Most were in parks and bush land away from residential areas.

Forecasters said a heat wave that has stewed millions of people in the southeast in the past two weeks would peak at the weekend with temperatures of up to 117 F (47 C).

Hot, dry winds would also blow across the region, creating conditions very similar to those that caused the 1983 wildfire tragedy known as Ash Wednesday that killed 75 people.

“It’s just going to be, probably by a long way, the worst day ever in the history of the state in terms of temperatures and winds,” Victoria Premier John Brumby said of Saturday’s conditions. “If you don’t need to go out, don’t go out. It’s a seriously bad day.”

Most of the fires burning Saturday were being contained by thousands of volunteer firefighters manning hoses and building firebreaks at the edges. Tens of thousands more were standing by, along with water-bombing planes and helicopters, said New South Wales Rural Fire Service chief Shane Fitzsimmons.

Around lunchtime, crews were pulled back from the worst fire, which has burned 410 acres (165 hectares) in the Bunyip State Park near the southern city of Melbourne, because it was too dangerous. Only water-bombing aircraft would be used until conditions improved, state fire service official David Nugent said.

In Sydney, a pall of smoke hung over the city from three fires burning in the Hunter Valley region to the north, fire service spokeswoman Rebel Talbert said.

Wildfires are common during the Australian summer, as rising temperatures bake forest land tinder dry and blustering winds serve as a fan for embers. Some 60,000 fires occur each year, and about half are deliberately lit or suspicious, government research says. Other causes include lightning strikes and human activity such as use of machinery near dry brush.

Officials imposed strict bans Saturday on lighting backyard barbecues or using power tools in high-risk areas.

New South Wales’ health department spokesman Dr. Jeremy McAnulty said officials were preparing for extra heat-related emergencies during the weekend.

“More people get seriously ill and death rates can increase, so it’s really important that people remember … keep cool, keep well hydrated, look after your neighbors and rest up,” McAnulty said.

Meanwhile, a vast patch of northeastern Australia remained underwater after weeks of heavy rain.

Scores of people have been moved from inundated homes to emergency shelters, as floodwaters covered more than 60 percent of Queensland — an area the size of Spain. There have been no reported injuries.

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