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)

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)

Hundreds flee Australian bushfires that kill cattle, destroy homes

Smoke rises from a destroyed home after a bushfire swept through the town of Tathra, located on the south-east coast of New South Wales in Australia, March 19, 2018. AAP/Dean Lewins/via REUTERS

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australian authorities urged people to remain alert on Monday as bushfires that have destroyed dozens of homes, killed cattle and forced hundreds of residents to flee continued to burn out of control in the southeast of the country.

No deaths or serious injuries were reported on Monday but the bushfires have caused extensive damage in rural areas of Victoria and New South Wales (NSW), Australia’s two most populous states. More than 100 houses were damaged or destroyed, authorities said.

“At this stage (there have been) no lives lost,” Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said at a news conference in the small NSW coastal town of Tathra.

“It is just a great credit to the firefighters, to the volunteers, the emergency workers – all of the community has pulled together and provided such great support,” he said.

The fires, believed to have been sparked by lightning on Saturday, were fanned by dry, hot winds as temperatures reached 41 degrees Celsius (106 Fahrenheit) on Sunday.

Emergency officials said conditions should ease later on Monday but “watch and act” warnings remained in place for five locations.

A house thats has been destroyed by a bushfire can be seen near the town of Cobden, located south west of Melbourne in Australia, March 18, 2018. AAP/David Crosling/via REUTERS

A house thats has been destroyed by a bushfire can be seen near the town of Cobden, located south west of Melbourne in Australia, March 18, 2018. AAP/David Crosling/via REUTERS

The fire also set off an argument among Australia’s politicians on whether climate change was a contributing factor to the blazes.

“You can’t attribute any particular event, whether it’s a flood or fire or a drought …to climate change. We are the land of droughts and flooding rains, we’re the land of bushfires,” Turnbull said.

Authorities said some 69 houses were destroyed and a further 39 were damaged and 30 caravans or cabins were also wiped out in Tathra, where residents fled to the beach on Sunday to avoid the flames as flying embers quickly carried the firefront forward.

About 700 residents were evacuated to centers set up at the nearby town of Bega and several schools in affected areas were closed on Monday.

NSW Rural Fire Service Deputy Commissioner Rob Rogers earlier told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that five of 22 fires had not yet been contained.

“There’s still a lot of fire around the landscape,” he said, warning that it would still be several days before they were extinguished.

About 280 firefighters were battling the blazes, while 22,000 homes were without power in the region after high winds brought down trees, Emergency Management Commissioner Craig Lapsley said late on Sunday.

Bushfires are a common and deadly threat in Australia’s hot, dry summers, fueled by highly flammable eucalyptus trees.

In January, hundreds of holidaymakers had to be evacuated by boat from the beaches of the Royal National Park south of Sydney when they became trapped by bushfires.

The 2009 Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria killed 173 people and injured more than 400.

(Reporting by Jane Wardell and Tom Westbrook in SYDNEY; Additional reporting by Melanie Burton in MELBOURNE; Editing by Susan Fenton and Paul Tait)