Australian military's explosives exercise may have sparked bush fire

Explosives training probed as cause of one of the fires ravaging parts of New South Wales

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 October, 2013, 7:32am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 October, 2013, 7:32am

The Australian military said yesterday that it was investigating whether a major bush fire was linked to an explosives training exercise, as firefighters battled blazes that have destroyed or damaged at least 300 homes.

Firefighters were bracing for worsening conditions, with higher temperatures and winds expected to intensify the danger in the coming days.

The Rural Fire Service said around 80 fires were burning across New South Wales state, with about 20 of them uncontained despite yesterday's cooler weather conditions.

One of the major fires was between the towns of Lithgow and Bilpin, about 80 kilometres northwest of Sydney, which intensified after burning through 30,000 hectares and reportedly destroying some properties.

"This fire is by no means contained," said Rob Rogers, New South Wales Rural Fire Service deputy commissioner. "It's got absolutely kilometres and kilometres of fire front."

The Australian Defence Force said it was investigating the circumstances of the fire near Lithgow, which began on its land.

"The fire started on October 16, the same day that Defence personnel were conducting an explosive-ordnance training activity," it said in a statement.

"Defence is investigating if the two events are linked. Our thoughts are with those who have lost property or whose property is threatened by these devastating fires," it added.

Police are also investigating allegations that two girls aged 12 and 13 tried to light a fire in a woodland on Sydney's western fringe on Friday. Firefighters were able to extinguish a small fire in that area without damage to property. Police said the girls were questioned and then released. No charges were filed, but an investigation was continuing.

Firefighters are battling bush fires across New South Wales, which could take weeks to overcome fully, particularly with more hot and gusty weather forecast for as soon as today.

In the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, one of the worst-hit regions in the state, 193 homes have been destroyed and another 109 damaged by the fire storm that peaked on Thursday, the Rural Fire Service said.

The damage toll announced yesterday was more than double the count from the previous day and was expected to continue to rise as assessment teams and police move deeper into the destruction zone in search of survivors and victims.

Homes have been reported destroyed in other regions, but numbers were not yet available.

Crews were called to protect homes in the Lithgow region later yesterday, and also stepped up efforts in Springwood as that blaze continued to threaten more homes, with a small local hospital evacuated as a precaution.

Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said some of the fires were so big they would take more time to extinguish completely.

Associated Press, Agence France-Presse