Australia urges quarter of a million to flee as winds fan huge bushfires

By Martin Petty and Swati Pandey

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia urged nearly a quarter of a million people to evacuate their homes on Friday and prepared military backup as authorities said the next few hours could be “very, very challenging” even as rain poured down in some parts.

Defense personnel stood ready to move to bushfire grounds if conditions became extreme, Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters, as soaring temperatures and erratic winds create dangerous conditions.

“Even with rain in Melbourne, even with forecast better conditions next week, there is a long way to go in what has been an unprecedented fire event…and, of course, we know that we have many weeks of the fire season to run,” Daniel Andrews, the premier of Victoria, told a televised briefing.

“The next few hours are going to be very, very challenging.”

While the winds are expected to move through by Saturday morning, Andrews urged residents to stay on high alert and leave the community “if you are told to”.

Authorities sent emergency texts to 240,000 people in Victoria, telling them to leave. People in high-risk regions in New South Wales and South Australia were also urged to think about leaving, but officials did not say how many.

GRAPHIC: Sizing up Australia’s bushfires .

Since October, 27 people have been killed and thousands subjected to repeat evacuations as huge and unpredictable fires scorched more than 10.3 million hectares (25.5 million acres) of land, an area roughly the size of South Korea.

In the coastal town of Eden in New South Wales, where the alert status was upgraded to ‘watch and act’ on Friday evening, smoke filled the horizon as winds blew smoke and ash.

Shereen and Kim Green, who live on a farm with three houses and 50 cattle just outside Eden, were racing to fill two 1,000-litre tanks of water.

“This is to put out the spot fires and we’ll be staying up all night to defend our property,” said Shereen, as the wind shook her utility vehicle. “We’re taking the opportunity while we can.”

Sitting under the town’s watchtower, another resident Robyn Malcolm said: “If it all goes wrong, we’ll dash down to the wharf and get on a tugboat.”

Here are key events in the crisis:

* Of 160 fires ablaze across New South Wales (NSW), about 46 were uncontained. Two were burning at an ’emergency level’, eight blazes were in the “watch and act” category, with the rest at the “advice” level, the lowest alert rating.

* Neighboring Victoria had 36 fires, with more than 1.3 million hectares burned. Nine fires were at an emergency level.

* In the alpine region on the border of the southeastern states of Victoria and New South Wales, two fires were poised to merge and create a blaze over almost 600,000 hectares (1.5 million acres).

* Victoria emergency services minister Lisa Neville said some communities had been provided with large containers of satellite phones, baby formula, food, nappies, and torches in case they are cut off.

* Campaigners protested in Sydney and Melbourne on Friday as part of a wave of demonstrations planned in major world cities, to spotlight concerns about Australia’s climate change policies.

* Westpac estimated total bushfire losses to date at about A$5 billion ($3.4 billion), higher than the 2009 bushfires in Victoria but smaller than the Queensland floods in 2010/11. It forecast a hit of 0.2% to 0.5% on gross domestic product.

* Australia’s alpine resorts have dusted off winter snowmaking machines to blast ice-cold water onto dry ski slopes as fires threaten the Snowy Mountains region.

* The Insurance Council of Australia increased its estimate of damages claims from the fires to more than A$900 million, with claims expected to jump further.

* Health officials in New South Wales urged extra precautions to avoid heat-related illnesses.

* Australia’s wildfires have dwarfed other catastrophic blazes, with its burned terrain more than twice the extent of that ravaged this year by fires in Brazil, California and Indonesia combined.

* Of nine fires in the state of South Australia, one was categorized as an emergency.

* Climate protests were also planned on Friday in cities such as Canberra, targeting the government’s handling of the crisis and its position on climate change.

* Prime Minister Morrison said he was considering holding a wide-ranging national inquiry into the bushfires after the immediate crisis passed.

* Just shy of 2,000 homes have been destroyed in New South Wales, state authorities said, half during the past 10 days.

* The Commonwealth Bank of Australia is to donate cricketer Shane Warne’s prized “baggy green” cap to a museum after paying more than A$1 million for it at an auction for bushfire relief.

* Authorities have warned that the huge fires, spurred by high temperatures, wind and a three-year drought, will persist until there is substantial rainfall. The weather agency said there was no sign of that for months.

* Ecologists at the University of Sydney have estimated 1 billion animals have been killed or injured in the bushfires, potentially destroying ecosystems.

* Morrison has pledged A$2 billion ($1.4 billion) to a newly created National Bushfire Recovery Agency.

* About 100 firefighters from the United States and Canada are helping, with another 140 expected in coming weeks.

* The fires have emitted 400 megatonnes of carbon dioxide and produced harmful pollutants, the European Union’s Copernicus monitoring program said.

* Smoke has drifted across the Pacific, affecting cities in South America, and may have reached the Antarctic, the U.N.’s World Meteorological Organization said.

(Reporting by Colin Packham, Wayne Cole, Swati Pandey and Martin Petty; Editing by Jane Wardell)

Brush fire prompts evacuation of Los Angeles observatory

Firefighters work on a fire near the landmark Griffith Observatory in the hills overlooking Los Angeles, California, U.S. July 10, 2018. REUTERS/Patrick T. Fallon

By Steve Gorman

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – The landmark Griffith Observatory, a popular tourist attraction in the hills overlooking Los Angeles, was evacuated on Tuesday due to a brush fire that scorched a nearby swath of the surrounding park, authorities said.

The blaze erupted shortly after 2 p.m. (2100 GMT) and charred 10 acres of drought-parched chaparral and grass on the slopes of Griffith Park at the edge of the observatory grounds before firefighters brought the flames under control about 90 minutes later, fire officials said.

No injuries were reported from the fire, which followed a weekend heat wave that baked Los Angeles and much of the rest of Southern California, causing widespread power outages and contributing to a destructive wildfire in Santa Barbara County.

Smoke rises from a brush fire near the Giffith Observatory in Los Angeles, United States, in this still image taken from a July 10, 2018 video footage by Elizabeth West obtained from social media. Elizabeth West/Social Media/via REUTERS

Smoke rises from a brush fire near the Giffith Observatory in Los Angeles, United States, in this still image taken from a July 10, 2018 video footage by Elizabeth West obtained from social media. Elizabeth West/Social Media/via REUTERS

The fire in Griffith Park burned to within a quarter-mile of the observatory but never posed a direct threat to the building, which is situated on the southern slope of Mount Hollywood, according to city fire department spokesman Brian Humphrey.

Authorities, however, decided to evacuate the site “out of an abundance of caution,” Humphrey said. A pall of smoke from the blaze was visible throughout much of the surrounding metropolitan area.

About 600 to 700 visitors and staff were in the building at the time of the evacuation, observatory museum guide Juan Gutierrez told Reuters by telephone.

Gutierrez said he saw flames burning “pretty close” to outdoor restrooms located near the parking lot outside the main observatory entrance and along a road leading up to the site.

It was the third time the observatory was evacuated in the past two months because of a fire, Gutierrez said, adding that he overheard one park ranger say to another that the latest blaze appeared to have been ignited by a careless smoker.

Humphrey said the cause of the fire was under investigation.

The observatory, dedicated to astronomy for public viewing and education rather than research, was opened in 1935 and draws about 1.5 million visitors a year to Griffith Park, one of the largest municipal parks in the United States.

Providing a real-life backdrop for various Hollywood movies ranging from “Rebel Without a Cause” to “La La Land,” Griffith Park was the scene of a 1933 wildfire that killed 29 people, ranking as the single deadliest blaze on record in California.

The 4,300-acre park and observatory are both named for Griffith J. Griffith, an investor and developer who donated much of the land to the city of Los Angeles in the late 1890s before he was tried, convicted and sent to prison for shooting his wife in the eye. Left blind and disfigured, she divorced him.

(Reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien and Leslie Adler)

Spillway on California dam in danger of collapse, evacuations ordered

65,000 cfs of water flow through a damaged spillway on the Oroville Dam in Oroville, California, U.S.

By Dan Whitcomb

(Reuters) – Residents below the tallest dam in the United States, near Oroville in Northern California, were urgently ordered to evacuate on Sunday as a spillway appeared in danger of imminent collapse.

The abrupt evacuation orders came as authorities determined that the auxiliary spillway on the Lake Oroville Dam could give way at any time, unleashing floodwaters onto rural communities along the Feather River. “Immediate evacuation from the low levels of Oroville and areas downstream is ordered,” the Butte County sheriff said in a statement posted on social media. “This is NOT A Drill.”

The Oroville dam is nearly full after weeks of heavy rains and snow brought relief to the state after some four years of devastating drought.

The California Department of Water Resources said on Twitter at about 4:30 p.m. PST that the spillway next to the dam was “predicted to fail within the next hour.”

However it was still standing nearly three hours later as the Water Resources department said crews would use helicopters to drop rocks to fill a gouge in the spillway. Authorities were also releasing water to lower the lake’s level.

The Yuba County Office of Emergency Services urged evacuees to travel only to the east, south or west. “DO NOT TRAVEL NORTH TOWARD OROVILLE,” the department said on Twitter.

Evacuation centers were set up at a fairgrounds in Chico, California, about 20 miles northwest of Oroville, but roads leading out of the area were jammed as residents sought to drive out of the flood zone.

It was not clear how many residents were affected by the evacuation order.

State authorities and engineers on Thursday began carefully releasing water from the Lake Oroville Dam some 65 miles (105 km) north of Sacramento after noticing that large chunks of concrete were missing from a spillway.

Water levels were less than 7 feet (2 meters) from the top of the dam on Friday.

California Governor Jerry Brown asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Friday to declare a major disaster due to flooding and mudslides brought on by the storms.

The earthfill dam is just upstream and east of Oroville, a city of more than 16,000 people.

At 770 feet (230 meters) high, the structure, built between 1962 and 1968, is the tallest dam in the United States, besting the famed Hoover Dam by more than 40 feet (12 meters).

(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Editing by Peter Cooney and Mary Milliken)