Australian Bushfires Will Take Weeks to Put Out

Australian Bushfires Will Take Weeks to Put Out

15 February 2009

published by

Australia — Australia’s deadliest bushfires will take weeks to extinguish completely, even as firefighters make progress in controlling some blazes in favorable weather conditions, an environment department spokesman said.

Some fires in the Melbourne water-catchment area are in “very difficult terrain,” Lee Miezis of Victoria’s Department of Sustainability and Environment said today. Nine fires around the state have yet to be contained, he said.

The death toll from the fires, which started eight days ago, stands at 181 and the coroner is prepared for as many as 300 bodies, said Victorian Police CommissionerChristine Nixon. The Bureau of Meteorology is forecasting mild temperatures and “light to moderate” winds in most of the state today, with isolated showers tomorrow.

“We’re trying to make the most of it while we can and get as much of this under control and contained as possible,” Miezis said. “We’ll make progress but we won’t do it all. We’ve still got a long fight ahead of us.”

More than 450,000 hectares (1.1 million acres) of land has been destroyed, according to theCountry Fire Authority. Damage from the blazes may total more than A$2 billion ($1.3 billion), Standard & Poor’s said this week. An estimated 1,834 homes have been lost, up from an earlier estimate of about 1,000, while some 7,000 people have been left homeless.

More than 50 teams of identification experts are helping police find and identify bodies, Nixon said today in an interview on Sky News. The process slowed as work moved to more difficult locations such as burnt-out buildings, she said.

‘Painstaking Process’

“We’re working as hard as we can but it’s an incredibly painstaking process,” Nixon said. “As you can imagine when some of these premises have collapsed then you have to be able to move some of that material to assess whether or not anyone has been killed in that premises.”

The police may allow residents to return to some townships soon, though in the case of Marysville, where as many as 100 of the 500 residents may have died, it will be “some time yet,” she said. Police believe that fire may have been deliberately lit, she said.

Two weeks of record hightemperatures, reaching 46.4 degrees Celsius (115 degrees Fahrenheit) in Melbourne, and hot northerly gales across southeast Australia made conditions last weekend worse than in February 1983, when 75 people in Victoria and neighboring South Australia died in what are known as the Ash Wednesday fires.

While no communities are under threat today, authorities are recommending “continued vigilance” by residents in affected areas, Miezis said.

Active Fires

“We had great success overnight with a lot of hard work achieving some control measures,” he said by telephone. “We’ve done a lot of controlled burning to reduce fuel loads.”

The main focus of work is at two “active fire fronts” in the Kinglake-Murrindindi region northeast of the state capital, Melbourne, Miezis said. Those fires, together with controlled burning, are causing “some significant smoke haze in Melbourne and of course around the affected areas,” he said.

The U.S. has sent 60 experienced wilderness firefighters to assist, taking the numbers tackling the blazes to 4,291, including some from Canada and New Zealand.

Prime MinisterKevin Rudd on Feb. 12 promised to introduce a bushfire early warning system that would send alerts to mobile phones and landlines in threatened areas. The government is “bringing a spirit of determination” to getting the system set up after some delays, Deputy Prime MinisterJulia Gillard said today.

“Work is already in train, legislation needs to be changed and legislation is being brought to the parliament,” Gillard said in an interview on Nine Network.

A man was charged on Feb. 13 with arson over fires that killed at least 21 people in the town of Churchill, southeast of Melbourne.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
WP-Backgrounds Lite by InoPlugs Web Design and Juwelier Schönmann 1010 Wien