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Australia bushfires rage in 'catastrophic' conditions

08 january 2013, 11:53
0
Bushfires raged across Australia's most populous state Tuesday, fanned by intense heat and high winds in "catastrophic" conditions which have forced hasty evacuations and are threatening homes, AFP reports.

Authorities warned New South Wales state faced one of the highest-risk fire days in its history, and temperatures rapidly climbed above 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit).

"We've got 100 fires on the books, we are now dealing with just over 20 fires that remain uncontained," New South Wales Rural Fire Service commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons told reporters in Sydney.

The greatest risk is in the Shoalhaven, Illawarra and southern ranges south of Sydney, popular summer holiday locations, with Shoalhaven mayor Joanna Gash saying the area was a "tinderbox".

Authorities have warned that an out-of-control grass fire was encroaching properties in Brogo, about 160 kilometres (100 miles) south of the national capital Canberra, and also in the Kybeyan Valley in southern NSW.

"We just looked at each other and said 'We're leaving'," Brogo resident Hallie Fernandez-Markov told AFP from the town of Cobargo, where she was staying with friends after evacuating her guest house.

"It's high winds now, it's really blowy," she said of conditions, adding that temperatures were searing as she drove out along the heavily forested road as firetrucks rushed in to counter the blaze.

A total fire ban is in place throughout the state, while all national parks are closed, with temperatures forecast to peak at 45 degrees. Sydney was by early afternoon sweltering in 42-degree heat.

Fitzsimmons said forecasts of hot, windy conditions were proving to be correct.

"You don't get conditions worse than this, we are at the catastrophic level and clearly in those areas leaving early is your safest option," he said.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard urged caution.

"The word catastrophic is being used for good reason," she said. "So it is very important that people keep themselves safe, that they listen to local authorities and local warnings.

"This is a very dangerous day."

Introduced after the 2009 Black Saturday firestorm in Victoria state, which claimed 173 lives, a "catastrophic" rating means fires will be uncontrollable, unpredictable and fast-moving, with evacuation the only safe option.

There were also extreme conditions in Victoria Tuesday, with one fire at Kentbruck in the state's southwest doubling in size overnight with about 500 firefighters and 10 aircraft battling to stop it threatening rural communities.

Wildfires destroyed more than 100 homes on Tasmania over the weekend, and around 40 blazes were still burning across the southern island state Tuesday, including some threatening small communities.

"Currently we've got embers and spotting and ash blowing into Eaglehawk Neck, Pirates Bay, Doo Town area," Tasmanian Fire Service chief officer Mike Brown told reporters.

"We've been telling people for a number of hours now there was potential for that and they should consider relocating. It's now too late for that."

No deaths have been reported so far from the fires that are a regular occurrence in vast but sparsely populated and arid Australia, particularly in the hot summer months between December and February.

The last four months of 2012 were abnormally hot across the nation and the warm conditions have been exacerbated by very dry conditions due to the delayed start to a weak Australian monsoon.

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