US & World

Australia bushfires: Sydney area faces ‘catastrophic’ threat

burned out jaguarImage copyright AFP
Image caption The fires have also destroyed homes and property

Australia has warned of a “catastrophic” bushfire threat to areas surrounding Sydney, its largest city.

Residents in vulnerable communities are being urged to leave and seek shelter in shopping centres.

At least three people are dead and thousands have been displaced by a weekend of bushfires in Australia.

On Sunday more than 100 blazes were still burning across New South Wales (NSW) and Queensland.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison – who was heckled by a climate change protester as he briefed reporters – refused to be drawn on whether climate change could have contributed to the fires.

“My only thoughts today are with those who have lost their lives and their families,” he said.

What is the threat to the Sydney area?

New South Wales fire authorities has issued the maximum level of warning for the first time since new fire warnings were introduced a decade ago.

The “catastrophic” warning is in place across the Sydney metropolitan area – it is Australia’s most populous region, covering over 12,000 sq km (4,600 sq miles) and 658 suburbs.

Authorities also say the Hunter region to the north is at risk from fires.

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Media caption“Unprecedented” bushfires turn skies orange

Temperatures are expected to reach 37C by Tuesday. Conditions are expected to be worse than on Friday, when the firestorms began tearing through parts of eastern Australia.

“Under these conditions, these fires will spread quickly and threaten homes and lives,” NSW Rural Fire Service said in a statement.

Schools in vulnerable areas will be closed and firefighters from New Zealand have been flown in to help as weary emergency crews prepare for a fresh onslaught.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption More than 100 fires are raging across NSW and Queensland

Mr Morrison says the military could also be called upon to support the 1,300 firefighters working in the two states.

Hundreds of civilians have also volunteered to help in affected areas.

What’s the latest?

In Queensland, thousands of people spent the night in evacuation centres while officials assessed whether it was safe for them to return home.

Fire officials in NSW have confirmed that more than 150 homes have been destroyed.

Two firefighters were injured when a tree fell onto their truck in the Nambucca Heads area of NSW, officials said. They were treated at the scene and transferred to hospital in a stable condition.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Thousands of people have been driven from their homes

Although cooler weather on Saturday night provided some reprieve, it is feared that high temperatures, low humidity and strong winds forecast from the middle of the week will fuel further fires that officials will be unable to contain.

Who were the victims?

While clearing affected areas on Friday, fire crews discovered the body of one victim in a burned out car near Glen Innes, about 550km (340 miles) north of Sydney.

In the same town on the same day, a woman was found suffering from severe burns. She was rushed to hospital but died shortly afterwards.

Carol Sparks, the mayor of Glen Innes, said on Sunday that the town’s residents were traumatised.

“The fire was as high as 20 ft [6m] and raging with 80 km/h [50 mph] winds,” she told Australian broadcaster ABC. “It was absolutely horrific for the people that were impacted.”

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption About 1,000 firefighters have been tackling the blazes across New South Wales
Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Water-bombing helicopters have been deployed to the site of the fires

On Saturday, NSW police confirmed that a third person had died after a body was found in a burnt-out home near Taree, a town about 300km north of Sydney.

Police said the home belonged to a woman aged 63, but that they wouldn’t be able to confirm the person’s identity until a post-mortem had been carried out.

In NSW, the worst-hit state, crews have fought hundreds of fires since last month, when two people died while trying to protect their home.

Earlier this month, a blaze burned though 2,000 hectares of bush which contained a koala sanctuary. Hundreds of the animals were feared to have died.

What about the drought?

Rains lashed NSW earlier this week, providing much relief to farmers. But the storms were not nearly enough to end the long-running drought.

Authorities in the state warn that many fires will continue to burn unless there is more rain.

“We just cannot overstate the profound impact that the drought is having on fire behaviour,” Mr Fitzsimmons said.

Water-bombing aircraft are often flying long distances because of the difficulty of accessing water in dry areas. In some cases authorities have drilled bores to keep up with demand.

“We’ve very mindful of the scarcity of water and how precious it is, but the reality is we can’t do firefighting without water,” Mr Fitzsimmons said.

Is this linked to climate change?

Australia’s fire season risks growing longer and more intense due to climate change, according to scientists.

Authorities said they were concerned about the severity of the fires ahead of its hottest months, a year after the nation experienced its warmest summer on record.

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Media captionWhy Australia bushfires are now “hotter and more intense”

Officials have confirmed that 2018 and 2017 were Australia’s third and fourth-hottest years on record respectively.

The bureau’s State of the Climate 2018 report said climate change had led to an increase in extreme heat events and increased the severity of other natural disasters, such as drought.

Even if global temperatures are contained to a 2C rise above pre-industrial levels – a limit set out in the landmark Paris accord, agreed by 188 nations in 2015 – scientists believe the country is facing a dangerous new normal.

Last year, a UN report said Australia was falling short in efforts to cut its CO2 emissions.


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