Temporary drop in temperatures brings relief for Australian fire crews

Up to 30 blazes are still out of control, but a drop in temperature helps contain bushfires

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 January, 2013, 4:58am

Cooler conditions helped firefighters douse fierce blazes across Australia yesterday but up to 30 still raged out of control, destroying a handful of homes and killing thousands of livestock.

After facing one of the highest-risk fire days in its history on Tuesday, shifting winds in New South Wales caused temperatures to drop significantly.

While the mercury topped 42 degrees Celsius in Sydney on Tuesday, it was 25 degrees yesterday. Victoria's capital Melbourne was down to 20 degrees, although hotter weather was forecast to return by the weekend.

The ratings on many bushfires were downgraded with none now at the "catastrophic" level which signifies fires will be uncontrollable, unpredictable and fast-moving, with evacuation the only safe option.

But NSW Rural Fire Service commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons warned against complacency, with new fronts breaking out despite the colder weather and a total fire ban still in place.

"It is far from over when it comes to the threat to New South Wales," he said in Bookham, a small village in Yass Shire west of Canberra where a fire has so far burnt out 16,000 hectares.

More than 2,000 firefighters worked through the day tackling some 140 blazes across New South Wales, Australia's most populous state, with 30 of those uncontained.

But some were being brought under control, including a blaze at Deans Gap, near Nowra south of Sydney. It was water-bombed from the air with fire crews mopping up on the ground.

New South Wales Premier Barry O'Farrell said an estimated 10,000 sheep had perished in the Yass area alone.

Wildfires are a fact of life in Australia, where 173 people perished in the 2009 Black Saturday firestorm, the nation's worst natural disaster of modern times. Most are ignited naturally, but in Sydney's west three teenage boys were charged with deliberately lighting a fire in bushland on Tuesday.

Victoria has been experiencing extreme conditions, with four homes destroyed and six people treated for minor burns or smoke inhalation from a bushfire in the farming community of Carngham, which was evacuated.

Authorities said the blaze was under control but it left some families devastated, including Ray Stone and his wife Gayle.

"Shattered. Not a thing [left], nothing," Stone said.

While it was initially believed as many as 100 people could be missing on the southern island of Tasmania after wildfires razed more than 100 homes over the weekend, police yesterday tempered concerns.

"We are encouraged that we haven't found any human remains at this stage," Tasmania's acting police commissioner Scott Tilyard said.