Fears grow NSW Blue Mountains bushfires will merge and form a ‘mega-fire’

Fears grow NSW Blue Mountains bushfires will merge and form a ‘mega-fire’

21 October 2013

published by www.theaustralian.com.au

Australia — TWO major NSW bushfires have flared up again as firefighters brace for worsening conditions and try to halt the formation of a “mega-fire”.

The blaze in the Springwood area of the Blue Mountains which last week destroyed 200 homes was this afternoon upgraded to emergency status.

And in the NSW Southern Highlands, a major fire that has been burning for days near Wollondilly was again upgraded and residents in the village of Wilton warned burning embers were blowing their way.

The new emergencies came as hundreds of firefighters resorted to “high-risk” back-burning strategies against the biggest of the bushfires, the State Mine blaze near Lithgow in the Blue Mountains.

The great fear is that at least three major fires in the Blue Mountains will merge and head toward’s Sydney’s western suburbs amid worsening conditions on Wednesday.

And as firefighters continued to try to save homes, the Insurance Council of Australia said the insurance bill so far was about $94 million, with 855 claims made.

Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said firefighters were today taking “considered” but risky moves to strengthen containment lines around the huge State Mine blaze near Lithgow.

Firefighters have successfully conducted back-burning along more than 20 kilometres of Bells Line of Road.

But authorities conceded the move risked accelerating the feared joining-up of the State Mine fire with a blaze at Mount Victoria, which authorities say is likely to happen in coming days.

Mr Fitzsimmons said this morning the plan was “paying off” so far.

“If it comes off, and works, it’s a wonderful firefighting effort,” he told reporters.

“But there is every likelihood investing in a strategy like that that it will breach, that it will fail and then you’ve got a fire that will cross over everything you’ve just tried to implement.”

The main focus remains on the huge State Mine fire, which has a massive 300km fire-front and which is heading towards another blaze near Mount Victoria, which has a 60km fire-front.

The major fire around Springwood and Winmalee, which destroyed so many homes last Thursday and which has burnt out more 2,700 hectares, remains a threat to several communities.

Authorities fear there’s a “very, very serious risk” of fires amalgamating.

NSW Emergency Service Minister Mike Gallacher says northwesterly winds forecast for this week could push the large Lithgow fire into others in the Blue Mountains and towards more populated areas like Katoomba and Leura, and western Sydney.

Mr Fitzsimmons this morning conceded a merging of major blazes was a real possibility.

By this afternoon, he said the State Mine Fire and the Mount Victoria blaze could merge as early as tomorrow.

“I suspect (the two fires will meet) somewhere in the middle of the Grose Valley,” he said.

“It’s only about three to five kilometres apart in some areas, it won’t take that long for (them) to join together.”

Residents in the Blue Mountains township of Bell were today again urged to evacuate ahead of temperatures in the mid-30s, low humidity and problematic winds around 25km/h.

“This is still a very volatile, very long, uncontained fire edge that is going to be quite susceptible to weather,” Mr Fitzsimmons told reporters.

Of great concern are the forecast high temperatures and strong winds forecast for Wednesday.

Mr Gallacher says the conditions are forecast to be similar to those seen last Thursday, when the emergency began.

But Mr Fitzsimmons also moved to allay fears of mass evacuations across the Blue Mountains after warning yesterday that populated areas like Katoomba and Leura could be affected.

“We are not planning an exodus of the Blue Mountains but what I would say is, if you don’t need to be in the Blue Mountains, don’t go there,” he said.

A state of emergency declared yesterday gives authorities the power to force evacuations and even destroy buildings that pose a danger, but those powers haven’t yet been used.

Premier Barry O’Farrell said no one wanted to force people to abandon their homes, but it could be necessary to ensure everyone’s safety.

“We know there is understandable heartache about leaving property perhaps vulnerable. But if it’s a choice between property or lives we should always go for lives,” he told the Nine Network.

Mr Gallacher will meet with Federal Justice Minister Michael Keenan today ahead of the military possibly joining the firefighting effort.

“This is really high level,” Mr Gallacher told ABC radio.

“We’ll have access to tankers that can assist in terms of aviation fuel, whatever firefighting equipment that they have as well.

“It is a question of sitting down with every one of the authorities that potentially has a resource that we can get access to.”

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