Nation on alert as bushfires spread, Gillard warns NSW residents to be vigilant

Bushfires in Australia leave path of destruction

07 January 2013

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Australia —  Australia is bracing for days of “catastrophic” fire and heatwave conditions, with fires burning in five states and a search continuing for people missing after devastating wildfires in the island state of Tasmania.

Julia Gillard, the Australian prime minister, toured fire-ravaged Tasmanian townships and promised emergency aid for survivors, who told of a fireball that engulfed communities across the thinly populated state on Friday and Saturday.

“The trees just exploded,” local resident Ashley Zanol told Australian radio, recounting a wall of flames that surrounded his truck as he carted water to assist fire crews in the township of Murdunna, which was largely destroyed.

Tasmanian police said around 100 people feared missing in bushfires had been accounted for and there had so far been no deaths as authorities combed through smouldering ruins of homes and vehicles while evacuating local people and tourists.

There are fires in five of Australia’s six states, with 90 in the most populous state of New South Wales and in mountain forests around the national capital, Canberra.

Severe fire conditions were forecast for Tuesday, replicating those of 2009, when the Black Saturday wildfires in Victoria state killed 173 people and caused $4.4bn-worth (£2.7bn) of damage.

A record heatwave, which began in western Australia on 27 December and lasted eight days, was the fiercest in more than 80 years in that state and has spread east across the nation, making it the widest-ranging heatwave in more than a decade, according to the Australian Bureau of Meteorology.

Tuesday would bring the highest bushfire temperature conditions, said fire officials. In such circumstances people would be advised to flee any threatening fire as crews as the blaze would likely to be too fierce for fire crews to extinguish.

“Any fire that burns under the predicted conditions – 40C temperatures, below 10% humidity, winds gusting over 70km/hr (43mph) – those conditions are by any measure horrendous,” said Rob Rogers, deputy commissioner of the New South Wales rural fire service.

In Canberra, hit by a firestorm in 2003 that destroyed hundreds of homes, authorities said they were expecting the worst conditions in the decade since, with a fifth day of searing temperatures and strong winds.

“With those winds it boosts up the fire danger significantly,” the city’s deputy fire chief, Michael Joyce, told local reporters.

Blazes sparked by weekend lightning storms were already burning in forests surrounding the sprawling lake-and-bushland city, as they did 10 years earlier.

Authorities warned earlier in the Australian summer that much of the country faced extreme fire conditions this season, after several years of cooler conditions that had aided forest growth but also created tinder dry fire fuel conditions.

Gillard warned all Australians to be alert as temperatures soared in coming days. “We live in a country that is hot and dry, and where we sustain very destructive fires periodically, so there is always going to be risk,” she said.

“We do know over time that as a result of climate change we are going to see more extreme weather events and conditions.”

Australia is the world’s second largest wheat exporter but its wheat harvest was not expected to be affected by the fires and hot weather, as the vast majority of this season’s winter crop had already been harvested, analysts said.

“In respect to the summer crop, the sunflowers, sorghum for example, the weather will have an impact, particularly in northern New South Wales where they had low soil moisture coming into the season,” said Andrew Woodhouse, grains analyst at Advance Trading Australasia.

GrainCorp, Australia’s largest listed agricultural company, said the planting window for crops like sorghum would close in mid-February, allowing farmers to delay seeding until conditions improved.

“Farmers will be looking for rain for sure but we will have to wait and see what happens,” said GrainCorp spokesman Angus Trigg.

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