Australian firefighters merge wildfires ahead of ‘bad’ weather

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 October, 2013, 5:24pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 October, 2013, 8:40pm

Firefighters on Tuesday deliberately merged two major blazes in southeastern Australia in a desperate attempt to manage the advancing infernos ahead of weather conditions that authorities warn will be “as bad as it gets”.

Crews made up largely of volunteers worked tirelessly along trails in heavily forested areas west of Sydney to try to prevent the blazes becoming one out-of-control “mega-fire” that could race towards a third blaze nearby.

Thousands of firefighters have been battling infernos across 1,600 kilometres of New South Wales state since they flared in high winds and searing heat last week, with more than 200 homes destroyed so far and many others damaged.

We are seeing positive results of these very deliberate, very targeted, very decisive strategies being deployed, particularly in relation to backburning operations
Shane Fitzsimmons

Only one person has died but with Wednesday’s weather forecast worse than previously predicted, NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons warned: “There is a very real potential for more loss of homes and loss of life.”

He urged anyone who does not need to be in the Blue Mountains region, home to 75,000 residents, to leave, although no mass evacuations were planned.

“The forecast and scenario for tomorrow is about as bad as it gets,” said the fire chief. Temperatures in the mid-30s Celsius range, lower humidity and wind gusts of up to 100 kilometres per hour are predicted before more favourable conditions from Thursday.

In the state’s worst fire emergency in almost 50 years, dozens of blazes have been extinguished or contained but 57 are still alight and 17 of them deemed out of control.

The Blue Mountains, a popular tourist area, is the main focus of concern because of a huge fire in the Lithgow area.

Fitzsimmons said two fires were “deliberately and tactically joined” through backburning – a tactic aimed at creating firebreaks to control the path of blazes.

The decision to merge the edges of the infernos near Lithgow and Mount Victoria in the Blue Mountains is aimed at starving them of the fuel that would otherwise have allowed them to become the “mega-fire” authorities were fearing on Monday.

Authorities had feared they would join up with an out-of-control blaze at Springwood and Winmalee, which razed 200 houses last week and which has flared again.

“We are seeing positive results of these very deliberate, very targeted, very decisive strategies being deployed, particularly in relation to backburning operations,” Fitzsimmons said.

But while firefighters have had “some extraordinary success”, Fitzsimmons warned “there’s still a way to go”.

While claiming some success, with the Lithgow area fire downgraded one notch to a “watch and act” from the highest level “emergency”, it still threatened properties near the township of Bell and other villages.

In addition to the fires outside Sydney, large tracts of the state remain at risk.

Wildfires are common in Australia’s summer months from December to February. But an unusually dry and warm winter and record spring temperatures have seen the 2013-14 fire season start early with warnings of a long, tough summer ahead.

As debate rages in Australia on a possible link between the infernos and climate change, United Nations climate chief Christiana Figueres said wildfires are “absolutely” linked to global warming and increasingly intense heatwaves.

She said the decision of Australia’s new Prime Minister Tony Abbott to repeal a carbon tax on emissions introduced by the previous government would come at a high price.

“We are really already paying the price of carbon,” she said. “We are paying the price with wildfires, we are paying the price with droughts.”

Data from Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology show that this year is on track to become the country’s hottest year on record while last month was the hottest September ever recorded in the country.