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)

U.S. military searches for three Marines in sea after aircraft crashes off Australia

Two U.S. Marines MV-22 Osprey Aircraft sit on the apron of Sydney International Airport in Australia, June 29, 2017. Picture taken June 29, 2017.

By Tom Westbrook

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Rescue teams were searching for three U.S. Marines missing after their aircraft crashed into the sea off Australia’s east coast on Saturday, the U.S. Marine Corps said.

Twenty-three other personnel aboard the MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft had been rescued, the III Marine Expeditionary Force, based in Okinawa, Japan, said in a statement.

In past years, Ospreys have been involved in incidents resulting in deaths or injuries.

The aircraft had launched from the USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6) amphibious assault ship and was on regular operations when it hit the water, the statement said. Boats and aircraft on the ship immediately began a search-and-rescue effort.

The U.S. Marine Corps said the incident was under investigation but gave no additional information.

U.S. President Donald Trump, who was on his first full day of vacation at the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey, was briefed on the situation by his chief of staff, retired Marine Corps General John Kelly, according to a White House official.

The incident took place off the coast of Shoalwater Bay, in Australia’s northeastern state of Queensland, the Australiandefense ministry said.

One person had been taken to Rockhampton hospital, a Queensland Ambulance spokesman said. He gave no further details.

The Bonhomme Richard Expeditionary Strike Group was in Australia to participate in joint training maneuvers involving more than 33,000 U.S. and Australian military personnel, which ended two weeks ago.

The exercises included the participation of MV-22 Ospreys practicing the deployment of U.S. Marine reconnaissance teams.

The Osprey, built by Boeing Co and Textron Inc’s Bell Helicopter unit, is designed to take off like a helicopter and rotate its propellers to fly like a plane.

Its development was nearly canceled after the deaths of 23 Marines during flight testing in 2000, but its speed and range have made it very popular in recent years.

In December, the U.S. military grounded its Osprey fleet in Japan after one of the aircraft ditched into the sea, injuring its crew of five when a hose connected to the aircraft broke during a refueling exercise.

Australia has sent troops to fight in the U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan and Iraq.

 

(Reporting by Colin Packham and Tom Westbrook in SYDNEY and Jamie Freed in SINGAPORE, Jonathan Landay in WASHINGTON and Amy Tennery in BRIDGEWATER, N.J.; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Lisa Von Ahn)

 

Northeast Australia braces for cyclone, thousands flee to higher ground

Residents fill sandbags in preparation for the arrival of Cyclone Debbie in the northern Australian town of Bowen, located south of Townsville. AAP/Sarah

By Tom Westbrook

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Thousands of Australians fled their homes on Monday as a powerful cyclone bore down on coastal towns in Queensland, where authorities urged 30,000 people to evacuate low lying areas most at risk from tidal surges and winds of up to 300 km per hour (185 mph).

Cyclone Debbie is expected to gather strength before making landfall in the northeast state early on Tuesday, with the Australian Bureau of Meteorology forecasting a category four storm, just one rung below the most dangerous wind speed level.

The growing alarm persuaded the state government on Monday to warn some 25,000 people living in parts of Mackay, a city 950 kilometers (590 miles) north of the state capital Brisbane, to head south to higher ground.

“Because of the intensity of this cyclone … we are very concerned, at the moment, at the prospect of a tidal surge in Mackay,” State Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk told reporters.

“It’s very clear that the time for people to move is now.”

The evacuation from Mackay would be the biggest seen in Australia since Cyclone Tracy struck the northern city of Darwin in 1974.

State authorities had already advised thousands of residents in two townships several hundred kilometers (miles) to the north of Mackay to leave their homes, though some were preparing to ride out the storm.

Television images showed residents in areas around Townsville, about 400km to the north of Mackay, protecting homes and shops with sandbags and plywood boards.

“We’ll just give it a go and rally together,” Cungulla resident Mike Kennedy told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Palaszczuk warned it would be the most powerful storm to hit the state since Cyclone Yasi destroyed homes, crops and devastating island resorts in 2011.

Authorities had set up 15 evacuation centers in safer parts of Mackay to provide shelter for those most endangered and least able to leave, Palaszczuk added.

Far to the north in Townsville, some 3,500 people had left, and authorities asked 2,000 more people in the town of Bowen to also quit their homes.

 

A sign can be seen painted on the fence of a home regarding the arrival of Cyclone Debbie in the northern Australian town of Bowen, located south of Townsville.

A sign can be seen painted on the fence of a home regarding the arrival of Cyclone Debbie in the northern Australian town of Bowen, located south of Townsville. AAP/Sarah Motherwell/via REUTERS

The Abbot Point coal terminal and ports at Mackay and Hay Point were closed until further notice, ports spokeswoman Fiona Cunningham said.

BHP Billiton suspended operations at its South Walker Creek coal mine, which is just to the south of the cyclone’s expected path. Glencore said it was halting operations at the Collinsville and Newlands coal mines.

Gales were already lashing the tourist resorts at Airlie Beach and the Whitsunday Islands.

Townsville Airport was closed and airlines Qantas, Jetstar, Rex and Virgin Australia said they had canceled several flights to and from the region scheduled for Monday and Tuesday.

Queensland produces some 95 percent of Australian bananas and while Cyclone Debbie is on course to miss the largest growing regions in the state’s far north, analysts said heavy rains and strong winds could cause significant crop damage.

The cyclone is expected to miss most of region’s coal mines, weather and mining data in Thomson Reuters Eikon shows, and no major dry-bulk vessels are in storm’s path.

Police blamed the wild weather associated with the storm for a traffic accident in which a 31-year-old female tourist died. Police did not give the woman’s nationality.

(Additional reporting by Byron Kaye, Sonali Paul, Colin Packham and Benjamin Weir. Editing by Jane Wardell and Simon Cameron-Moore)