Fears grow about Sydney after Australia fires merge into giant blaze

Fears grow about Sydney after Australia fires merge into giant blaze
By Colin Packham and Byron Kaye

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Bushfires fanned by winds combined into a single giant blaze north of Sydney late on Friday, blanketing Australia’s biggest city in hazardous smoke, causing weekend sports games to be canceled and prompting calls for outdoor workers to stay home.

Wildfire has killed at least four people and destroyed more than 680 homes across eastern Australia since the start of November, months earlier than the usual summer bushfire season, with the authorities blaming an extended drought, strong wind and suspected arson.

Smoke and flying ash has lingered over Sydney for most of the past week, turning the daytime sky orange, obscuring visibility and prompting commuters to wear breathing masks. Satellite images spread on social media showed the smoke spreading across the Tasman Sea to New Zealand, 2,000 kilometers (1,240 miles) away.

“The massive #NSW fires are in some cases just too big to put out at the moment,” wrote the Australian Bureau of Meteorology in a post on its official Twitter account.

Sydney is the capital city in New South Wales state.

The New South Wales Rural Fire Service (RFS) said in a tweet that “a number of fires in the Hawkesbury, Hunter and Central Coast areas have now joined”. The tweet included a map showing 10 separate fires connecting about 50 kilometers north of metropolitan Sydney.

The total area burnt by those fires was around 335,000 hectares, or 830,000 acres, the RFS added.

RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said authorities were particularly concerned the fires may spread east.

“They have the potential or are expected to spread further east, which unfortunately is getting into more populated areas, villages, communities, isolated rural areas, and other farming practices and businesses throughout the region,” Fitzsimmons told reporters in Sydney.

About 500 homes in coastal communities around 350 kilometers south of Sydney had lost electricity to fire and repair workers were unable to start restoring power until the area was declared safe, energy provider Endeavour Energy said in a tweet. “Affected customers should consider alternative accommodation until their power is back.”

Sporting body Cricket NSW urged clubs to consider cancelling weekend games due to poor air quality.

“We appreciate this may mean some finals are not played and players may be disappointed, however the welfare of our cricket communities is our number one priority,” Cricket NSW CEO Lee Germo said in a statement.

Australia’s worst bushfires on record destroyed thousands of homes in Victoria state in February 2009, killing 173 people and injuring 414 more.

(Reporting by Byron Kaye and Colin Packham; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Muralikumar Anantharaman)

Australians shelter from bushfires as political heat climbs

By Colin Packham

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Firefighters battled hundreds of bushfires across Australia on Thursday as scores of blazes sprang up in new locations, triggering warnings that it was too late for some residents to evacuate.

As Thick smoke blanketed the most populous city of Sydney for a third day, residents were urged to keep children indoors, stepping up pressure on Prime Minister Scott Morrison to tackle climate change.

By early afternoon, dozens of fires were burning across the southeastern state of Victoria and temperatures of 40.9 Celsius (105.6 F) in Melbourne, its capital, matched the hottest day on record in 1894, Australia’s weather bureau said.

Authorities warned residents of towns about 50 km (31 miles) north of Ballarat, the state’s third largest city, that it was too late for them to evacuate safely.

“You are in danger, act now to protect yourself,” fire authorities said in an alert. “It is too late to leave. The safest option is to take shelter indoors immediately.”

Blazes across several states have endangered thousands of people, killing at least four people this month, burning about 2.5 million acres (1 million hectares) of farmland and bush and destroying more than 400 homes.

The early arrival and severity of the fires in the southern hemisphere spring follows three years of drought that experts have linked to climate change and which have left bushland tinder-dry.

With 10 days remaining to the official start of summer, extreme temperatures and high winds have sparked wildfires in new areas, even as firefighters tracked the crisis across the mainland, the Northern Territory and the island of Tasmania.

In Victoria, power to more than 100,000 homes was knocked out amid lightning strikes and strong, gusty winds of more than 110 kph (68 mph) that knocked tree branches into power lines, ahead of a cool change expected to bring relief in the evening.

The extensive damage was likely to leave some customers without power through the night as utilities worked to restore networks and fix downed powerlines, a spokeswoman for power provider Ausnet said.

State authorities issued its first Code Red alert in a decade, signifying the worst possible bushfire conditions, warning that should a fire start it would be fast moving, unpredictable and probably uncontrollable.

In the state of New South Wales, strong winds blew smoke from 60 fires still burning over much of Sydney, shrouding the harbor city and its famous landmarks in thick smog.

The state imposed tough new water curbs in Sydney from Dec. 10, when a key dam is expected to be down to 45% capacity. Residents face fines if they use hoses to water their gardens and wash their cars.

CLIMATE POLITICS

The unrelenting conditions have sharpened attention on the climate change policies of Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who rejected any link.

“Climate change is a global phenomenon, and we’re doing our bit as part of the response to climate change,” Morrison told ABC radio.

“To suggest that, with just 1.3% of global emissions, that Australia doing something differently – more or less – would have changed the fire outcome this season, I don’t think that stands up to any credible scientific evidence at all.”

Morrison’s conservative government has committed to the Paris Agreement for a cut in emissions from 26% to 28% by 2030, versus 2005 levels. Critics say current projections suggest it will miss that target and have urged remedial steps.

(Reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by Jane Wardell and Clarence Fernandez)

New front opens in Australian bushfires, power cut to thousands

By Colin Packham

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Electricity firms cut off power to thousands of people, more than 100 schools were closed and residents in high risk regions sought shelter on Wednesday as Australia’s devastating bushfires opened up a new front.

Australia has been battling wildfires across several states for days, endangering thousands of people in many communities. Blazes so far this month have killed at least four people, burnt about 2.5 million acres (1 million hectares) of farmland and bush and destroyed more than 300 homes.

On Wednesday, a fresh battle line was drawn as 50 fires sprung up in South Australia state, where officials lifted the fire danger warning to “catastrophic” as temperatures passed 42 degrees Celsius (107.6 degrees Fahrenheit).

A catastrophic warning means that should a fire start, it will not be possible for firefighters to control it, given the weather conditions.

“From sunrise until well past midnight, this state is going to experience very difficult fire conditions,” Brenton Eden, assistant chief officer at the South Australian Country Fire Service, told Australian Broadcasting Corp radio.

More than 600 firefighters attended to incidents across the state on Wednesday, and most were expected to keep battling fires throughout the night.

As some of fires approached electricity transmission lines, provider SA Power Networks cut power to over 12,000 customers.

With strong winds stoking blazes, authorities put residents near four of the fires on high alert to flee in case the flames spread rapidly.

“This is the worst of the weather from a fire behaviour point that we will have seen,” Eden told reporters in Adelaide, the state capital.

Australia is prone to bushfires in its dry, hot summers, but the recent series of fierce blazes have been sparked early, in the southern spring, after a three-year drought that has left much of the country tinder-dry.

While the immediate threat was in the south on Wednesday, firefighters continued to battle about 100 fires that have been burning for several days across Australia’s east coast.

Sydney, the country’s most populous city with around 5 million residents, was covered with thick smoke for the second day running. Health officials on Tuesday warned people in the harbour city to stay inside as the smoke reached hazardous levels.

(Reporting by Colin Packham; editing by Jane Wardell and Gerry Doyle)

Sydneysiders urged to stay indoors as Australian bushfire smoke blankets city

By Colin Packham

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Strong winds stoked more than 100 fires across Australia’s east coast on Tuesday, blanketing Sydney in hazardous smoke and prompting health warnings for the country’s most populous city.

Australia is prone to bushfires in its dry, hot summers, but fierce blazes have been sparked early, in the southern spring, by a long drought and soaring temperatures.

Wildfires have so far this month claimed at least four lives, burnt about 2.5 million acres (1 million hectares) of farmland and bush and destroyed more than 300 homes.

Powerful winds fanned around 130 fires that have been burning across New South Wales and Queensland states for several days, and pushed smoke south to form a thick haze over Sydney, home to around 5 million people.

Officials said the air quality above parts of the harbor city was measured at 10 times hazardous levels on Tuesday and advised people to stay indoors as much as possible as the smoke lingers over coming days.

“We know that heatwaves cause severe illness, hospital admission and even deaths, and that people are more sensitive to heatwaves early in the season,” Richard Broom, director of environmental health at NSW Health said In an emailed statement.

“The combination of heat and poor air quality adds to the risk.”

In NSW, firefighters were scrambling to strengthen fire containment lines ahead of forecast higher temperatures for much of the rest of the week.

“More than 1,300 firefighters are working on these fires, undertaking backburning operations and strengthening containment lines ahead of forecast hot, dry and windy weather, with seven areas under a total fire ban,” the NSW Rural Fire Service said in a statement.

The current bushfire crisis has mostly been contained to the east coast of NSW and Queensland states, but officials in South Australia warned on Tuesday that forecast near-record temperatures raises the risks in that state.

Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology said temperatures in Adelaide, the capital of South Australia, will hit 42 degrees Celsius (107.6 degrees Fahrenheit) on Wednesday, which coupled with strong winds will create “catastrophic” fire danger conditions.

(Reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by Paul Tait and Jane Wardell)

Devastating bushfire conditions to worsen in Australia

By Lidia Kelly

MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Rising temperatures, lightning strikes and erratic winds are set to fan wildfires in Australia in the week ahead, officials said on Sunday, with emergency crews already working day and night to contain more than 130 blazes.

The state of New South Wales, where 367 homes have been lost in the past week, reported 56 fires burning with about half yet to be contained, fire services said.

A heatwave forecast for this week is expected to heighten dangers in the state. The fires have already claimed four lives across the country’s east coast.

“We are expecting to see a worsening of conditions, particularly as we start heading into Tuesday and then continuing through Wednesday and Thursday again,” New South Wales Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said.

Crews from interstate and New Zealand were expected to bolster firefighters’ efforts from Monday in combating the blazes and to relieve volunteers.

Australia’s bushfires are a common and deadly threat but the early outbreak this year in the southern spring has already claimed several lives and destroyed hundreds of homes.

Authorities in Queensland issued emergency warnings for part of the state, where nearly 80 fires were burning on Sunday and as the region braced for more hot and dry weather in the week ahead.

“Until we get significant rainfall, the fires will not go out,” Queensland’s acting Fire and Emergency Commissioner, Mike Wassing, said in televised remarks.

(Reporting by Lidia Kelly; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Sam Holmes)

‘Leave now’: Australians urged to evacuate as ‘catastrophic’ fires loom

‘Leave now’: Australians urged to evacuate as ‘catastrophic’ fires loom
By Colin Packham

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Authorities declared a state of emergency across a broad swath of Australia’s east coast on Monday, urging residents in high risk areas to evacuate ahead of looming “catastrophic” fire conditions.

Bushfires burning across New South Wales (NSW) and Queensland states have already killed three people and destroyed more than 150 homes. Officials expect adverse heat and wind conditions to peak at unprecedented levels on Tuesday.

Bushfires are a common and deadly threat in Australia’s hot, dry summers but the current severe outbreak, well before the summer peak, has caught many by surprise.

“Everybody has to be on alert no matter where you are and everybody has to be assume the worst and we cannot allow complacency to creep in,” NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian told reporters in Sydney.

The country’s most populous city has been designated at “catastrophic fire danger” for Tuesday, when temperatures as high as 37 degrees Celsius (98.6 degrees Fahrenheit) are forecast to combine with powerful winds for potentially deadly conditions. It is the first time Sydney has been rated at that level since new fire danger ratings were introduced in 2009.

Home to more than 5 million people, Sydney is ringed by large areas of bushland, much of which remains tinder dry following little rain across the country’s east coast in recent months.

“Tomorrow is about protecting life, protecting property and ensuring everybody is safe as possible,” Berejiklian said.

Lawmakers said the statewide state of emergency – giving firefighters broad powers to control government resources, force evacuations, close roads and shut down utilities – would remain in place for seven days.

On Monday afternoon, the fire service authorised use of the Standard Emergency Warning Signal, an alarm and verbal warning that will be played on radio and television stations every hour.

NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons urged people to evacuate before conditions worsened, warning that new fires can begin up to 20km (12 miles) ahead of established fires.

“Relocate while things are calm without the pressure or anxiety of fires bearing down the back door,” he said.

Authorities stressed that even fireproofed homes will not be able to withstand catastrophic conditions, which Fitzsimmons described as “when lives are lost, it’s where people die”.

More than 100 schools will be closed on Tuesday.

On Monday afternoon, rescue services were moving large animals from high risk areas, while health officials warned that air quality across NSW will worsen as winds blow smoke from the current mid-north coast bushfires south.

The fires have already had a devastating impact on Australia’s wildlife, with about 350 koalas feared dead in a major habitat.

CLIMATE CHANGE DEBATE

Australia’s worst bushfires on record destroyed thousands of homes in Victoria in February 2009, killing 173 people and injuring 414 on a day the media dubbed “Black Saturday”.

The current fires, however, come weeks ahead of the southern hemisphere summer, sharpening attention on the policies of Australia’s conservative government to address climate change.

Environmental activists and opposition lawmakers have used the fires to call on Prime Minister Scott Morrison, a supporter of the coal industry, to strengthen the country’s emissions targets.

Morrison declined to answer questions about whether the fires were linked to climate change when he visited fire-hit areas in the north of NSW over the weekend.

Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack on Monday accused climate activists of politicising a tragedy at the expense of people in the danger zones.

“What we are doing is taking real and meaningful action to reduce global emissions without shutting down all our industries,” McCormack told Australian Broadcasting Corp radio.

“They don’t need the ravings of some pure, enlightened and woke capital city greenies at this time, when they’re trying to save their homes.”

(Reporting by Colin Packham. Editing by Lincoln Feast and Jane Wardell)

Thirst turns to anger as Australia’s mighty river runs dry

Thirst turns to anger as Australia’s mighty river runs dry
By Tracey Nearmy

MENINDEE, Australia (Reuters) – Reduced to a string of stagnant mustard-colored pools, fouled in places with pesticide runoff and stinking with the rotting carcasses of cattle and fish, the Darling River is running dry.

The parched earth of Australia’s longest waterway, if tributaries are included, is in the grip of the continent’s most severe drought in a century. At Menindee, 830 km west of Sydney, despair has turned to anger as residents blame the government for exacerbating the drought by drawing down river water in 2017 for irrigation and other uses downstream.

Locals now avoid using tap water for drinking and washing babies and children, saying it has caused skin irritation, and prefer boxed and bottled water instead.

“That was our food source, the river, our water source. That was our livelihood,” said Aboriginal elder Patricia Doyle, in her backyard piled with flotsam discovered in the now-exposed riverbed.

“When you live on a river and you have to have water brought into your town to drink and survive on, what’s that saying? It’s saying that our system … isn’t looked after properly.”

The past two years have been the driest in the catchment area of the Darling, which flows 2,844 km (1,767 miles) over the outback to the sea, and adjoining Murray river since records began in 1900.

Drought is weighing on economic growth, and the dire conditions have prompted Australia, a major wheat exporter, to import the grain for the first time in 12 years.

Last summer was the hottest on record, and in Menindee, where temperatures regularly top 38 Celsius (100 Fahrenheit), another scorching season is expected.

The government has set up a panel to evaluate water management and ordered its anti-trust watchdog to investigate trading in irrigation rights.

‘THE RIVER SHOULD BE FLOWING’

Doyle’s clan is called the Barkindji, or people of the river, and in Aboriginal language, the Darling is called the Barka.

The river is at the heart of stories about the origins of the clan and its cultural life, particularly evident in Menindee where a third of 550 residents are indigenous, compared with a national average of less than 3%.

Lined with river red gums, the Darling also waters some of Australia’s richest grazing land, and until the construction of railways in the early 20th century, was the main route used to take wool and other goods to market.

All aspects of society are now suffering. “The river country itself, it doesn’t provide as much as what it used to,” says Kyle Philip, a Barkindji hunter and goat musterer.

Parents have forbidden children from swimming in the murky water that remains. Fish caught in holes still deep enough to hold water are inedible.

“We could taste the mud in the meat of the perch,” said Philip. “We couldn’t really eat them.”

Recently, Aboriginal communities held special festivals along the river “to heal the Barka”. Ochre-painted dancers performed around fires at dusk, revering the river but also seeking to draw attention to its plight.

“We’re going to start dancing and singing the land,” organizer Bruce Shillingsworth said. “Singing the rivers, singing our environment back again to make it healthy.”

And in the Anglican church at Menindee, there are prayers. “The river should be flowing,” said Reverend Helen Ferguson.

“When that river flows, the people are just abuzz and the whole town just comes to life. But that hasn’t happened for some time now and my prayer is that people don’t get worn down through that.”

(Reporting by Tracey Nearmy in Menindee. Writing by Tom Westbrook; Editing by Karishma Singh)

U.S., allies urge Facebook not to encrypt messages as they fight child abuse, terrorism

By Joseph Menn, Christopher Bing and Katie Paul

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States and allies are seizing on Facebook Inc’s plan to apply end-to-end encryption across its messaging services to press for major changes to a practice long opposed by law enforcement, saying it hinders the fight against child abuse and terrorism.

The United States, the United Kingdom and Australia plan to sign a special data agreement on Thursday that would fast track requests from law enforcement to technology companies for information about the communications of terrorists and child predators, according to documents reviewed by Reuters.

Law enforcement could get information in weeks or even days instead of the current wait of six months to two years, one document said.

The agreement will be announced alongside an open letter to Facebook and its Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg, calling on the company to suspend plans related to developing end-to-end encryption technology across its messaging services.

The latest tug-of-war between governments and tech companies over user data could also impact Apple Inc, Alphabet Inc’s Google and Microsoft Corp, as well as smaller encrypted chat apps like Signal.

Washington has called for more regulation and launched anti-trust investigations against many tech companies, criticizing them over privacy lapses, election-related activity and dominance in online advertising.

Child predators have increasingly used messaging applications, including Facebook’s Messenger, in the digital age to groom their victims and exchange explicit images and videos. The number of known child sexual abuse images has soared from thousands to tens of millions in just the past few years.

Speaking at an event in Washington on Wednesday, Associate Attorney General Sujit Raman said the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children received more than 18 million tips of online child sex abuse last year, over 90% of them from Facebook.

He estimated that up to 75% of those tips would “go dark” if social media companies like Facebook were to go through with encryption plans.

Facebook said in a statement that it strongly opposes “government efforts to build backdoors,” which it said would undermine privacy and security.

Antigone Davis, Facebook’s global head of safety, told Reuters the company was looking at ways to prevent inappropriate behavior and stop predators from connecting with children.

This approach “offers us an opportunity to prevent harms in a way that simply going after content doesn’t,” she said.

In practice, the bilateral agreement would empower the UK government to directly request data from U.S. tech companies, which remotely store data relevant to their own ongoing criminal investigations, rather than asking for it via U.S. law enforcement officials.

The effort represents a two-pronged approach by the United States and its allies to pressure private technology companies while making information sharing about criminal investigations faster.

A representative for the U.S. Department of Justice declined to comment.

Susan Landau, a professor of cybersecurity and policy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, said disputes over encryption have flared on-and-off since the mid-1990s.

She said government officials concerned with fighting child abuse would be better served by making sure investigators had more funding and training.

“They seem to ignore the low-hanging fruit in favor of going after the thing they’ve been going after for the past 25 years,” she said.

The letter addressed to Zuckerberg and Facebook comes from U.S. Attorney General William Barr, UK Secretary of State for the Home Department Priti Patel and Australian Minister of Home Affairs Peter Dutton.

“Our understanding is that much of this activity, which is critical to protecting children and fighting terrorism, will no longer be possible if Facebook implements its proposals as planned,” the letter reads.

“Unfortunately, Facebook has not committed to address our serious concerns about the impact its proposals could have on protecting our most vulnerable citizens.”

WhatsApp’s global head Will Cathcart wrote in a public internet forum https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=21100588 on Saturday that the company “will always oppose government attempts to build backdoors because they would weaken the security of everyone who uses WhatsApp including governments themselves.”

That app, which is already encrypted, is also owned by Facebook.

(Reporting by Joseph Menn and Katie Paul in San Francisco and Christopher Bing in Washington; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

Canadian police descend on tiny Manitoba hamlet as teen murder suspects spotted

Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) continue their search for Kam McLeod and Bryer Schmegelsky, two teenage fugitives wanted in the murders of three people, near Gillam, Manitoba, Canada July 28, 2019. Manitoba RCMP/Handout via REUTERS

TORONTO (Reuters) – Canadian police descended on a tiny hamlet in northern Manitoba on Sunday after a reported sighting of two teenage fugitives wanted in the murders of three people, including American and Australian tourists.

The days-long manhunt for Kam McLeod, 19, and Bryer Schmegelsky, 18, which has crossed half the country, shifted to the area of York Landing, Manitoba, about 3,000 km (1,865 miles) from the crime scenes in British Columbia.

“Multiple resources are being sent to York Landing, Manitoba, to investigate a tip that the two suspects are possibly in, or near, the community,” the Royal Canadian Mounted Police said on Twitter. ” … despite reports, there’s no-one in custody at this time.”

The pair were originally reported as missing on July 19 but were later described as suspects in the killing of American Chynna Deese, 24, and her boyfriend, Australian Lucas Fowler, 23. Police charged the fugitives last week with the second-degree murder of Leonard Dyck, 64, a Vancouver botany professor. ]

Police had concentrated their search in recent days in the harsh terrain in the Gillam, Manitoba, area, more than 1,000 km (620 miles) north of Winnipeg, deploying drones, dogs and military help before shifting focus to York Landing on Sunday.

An official there said there had been sightings of the pair around the community’s landfill.

Chief Leroy Constant of York Factory Cree Nation said heavy winds were limiting police helicopters and drones.

“We are urging everyone to remain indoors with windows and doors locked. Patrols of the community will be done on a 24-hour basis,” he said in a statement.

(Writing by Amran Abocar; Editing by Paul Tait)

Investigators to identify MH17 suspects: Dutch broadcasters

FILE PHOTO: A Malaysian air crash investigator inspects the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, near the village of Hrabove (Grabovo) in Donetsk region, Ukraine, July 22, 2014. REUTERS/Maxim Zmeyev/File Photo

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) – Investigators will next week announce criminal proceedings against suspects in the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 five years ago, allegedly by pro-Russian separatists, two leading Dutch broadcasters reported on Friday.

MH17 was shot out of the sky over territory held by separatists in eastern Ukraine as it flew from Amsterdam to the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur, killing all 298 people on board.

About two-thirds of the passengers were Dutch.

Dutch prosecutors said on Friday a multi-national investigation team would present its latest findings to media and families on June 19. A spokesman for the national Dutch prosecution service declined to specify what would be announced.

Citing anonymous sources, broadcaster RTL reported that the public prosecution service had decided to launch a case against several MH17 suspects.

National public broadcaster NOS also reported that criminal proceedings will be announced against individual suspects.

No suspects were named in the reports.

The Joint Investigation Team, which seeks to try the suspects under Dutch law, has said the missile system came from the Russian 53rd Anti-Aircraft Brigade, based in the western Russian city of Kursk.

Investigators had said their next step would be to identify individual culprits and to attempt to put them on trial.

Dutch officials have said Russia has refused to cooperate.

Russia is not expected to surrender any potential suspects who may be on its territory and authorities have said individuals could be tried in absentia.

The Joint Investigation Team was formed in 2014 by Australia, Belgium, Malaysia, the Netherlands and Ukraine to investigate collaboratively.

The Netherlands and Australia, which lost 38 people, hold Russia legally responsible. Moscow denies all involvement and maintains that it does not support, financially or with equipment, pro-Russian rebels fighting Ukrainian government troops.

(Reporting by Anthony Deutsch; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)