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FIRE STORM
Australian bushfires threaten to reach parts of Sydney
by Staff Writers
Sydney (AFP) Oct 20, 2013


Australian military to probe link to bushfire
Sydney (AFP) Oct 19, 2013 - The Australian military said Saturday it was investigating whether a major bushfire was linked to an explosives training exercise, as firefighters battled blazes that have destroyed or damaged 300 homes.

The Rural Fire Service said around 80 fires were burning across New South Wales state, with about 20 of them uncontained despite Saturday's cooler weather conditions.

Among the major fires was one burning between the towns of Lithgow and Bilpin, some 80 kilometres (50 miles) northwest of Sydney, which intensified after burning through 30,000 hectares (74,000 acres) and reportedly destroying some properties.

"This fire is by no means contained," New South Wales Rural Fire Service Deputy Commissioner Rob Rogers said.

''It's got absolutely kilometres and kilometres of fire front.''

The Australian Defence Force said it was investigating the circumstances of the fire near Lithgow, which began on defence land.

"The fire started on 16 October, the same day that Defence personnel were conducting an explosive ordnance training activity," it said in a statement.

"Defence is investigating if the two events are linked.

"Our thoughts are with those who have lost property or whose property is threatened by these devastating fires," it added.

Firefighters are battling bushfires across New South Wales, which could take weeks to fully overcome, particularly with more hot and gusty weather forecast for as soon as Sunday.

One man has already died while trying to protect his home on the Central Coast north of Sydney, possibly succumbing to a heart attack, but authorities are hopeful no other people are unaccounted for in the blazes.

The fires took hold in warm and windy conditions on Thursday and the worst affected areas have been in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, where around 193 properties were destroyed and 109 damaged in the towns of Springwood and Winmalee.

Crews were called to protect homes in the Lithgow region later Saturday, and also stepped up efforts in Springwood as that blaze continued to threaten more homes with a small local hospital evacuated as a precaution.

Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said some of the fires were so big they would take more time to completely extinguish.

"Firefighters will be working on these fires for weeks," he said.

"It's all about reducing the risk of these fires to breach containment lines and run under hotter, drier, windier condition over coming days."

In the meantime, residents were returning to the remains of their homes, searching through the rubble for valuables and keepsakes.

In Lithgow, the scenic tourist attraction the Zig Zag Railway has been hard hit, with trains, carriages and equipment destroyed.

The railway, which runs on the original track built in the 1860s, was soon to be reopened to the public after being closed last year for upgrades.

Australian fire crews were bracing Sunday for some of the worst conditions in decades as several major blazes threatened to merge into a mammoth firefront that could reach Sydney.

More than 200 homes have already been destroyed and another 120 damaged by the wildfires, which broke out across New South Wales state in unseasonably warm weather last week, fanned by extremely high winds.

The worst of the blazes, in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, plunged the city last week into an eerie midday darkness as plumes of smoke and ash filled the sky.

One man has died so far trying to protect his property.

Three separate infernos continued to burn in the Blue Mountains on Sunday. Grim forecasts of intensifying heat and winds prompted NSW Premier Barry O'Farrell to declare a state of emergency giving firefighters the power to forcibly evacuate people, with penalties for refusing.

"This is not an action taken lightly... but it's important the Rural Fire Service (RFS) and other emergency services have the powers and the resources they need to combat this threat," said O'Farrell.

"We are planning for the worst but hoping for the best."

Officials issued dire predictions about the worsening weather forecasts through to Wednesday, with a RFS spokesman saying there was the "very real potential that these three fires -- (one) in Lithgow and the two in the (Blue) Mountains -- could form as one fire over the next couple of days".

"We can understand the magnitude of that as it would then creep into the bottom end of Sydney. It's certainly something that we're very concerned about," the spokesman said.

Sydney's suburban outskirts are just across the Nepean River from the foot of the mountains. Embers jumped its banks on Thursday, starting a fire at Castlereagh near Penrith.

Some 76,000 people live in the Blue Mountains while the population of Sydney is 4.4 million.

NSW RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said there would be several extremely difficult days ahead for fire crews, with temperatures set to soar and a return to dangerously high winds.

"We've got what would be unparalleled (conditions) in terms of risk and exposure for the Blue Mountains and Hawkesbury communities throughout this week," Fitzsimmons told reporters.

"If you are to draw a parallel, and it's always dangerous to draw a parallel, at best you'd be going back to time periods in the late 60s."

"The reality is, however, these conditions that we're looking at are a whole new ball-game and in a league of their own."

A total ban on starting open-air fires for barbecues or other reasons was in place in Greater Sydney and three other regions across the state until further notice.

An emergency warning was issued for the Blue Mountains village of Bell, where residents were urged to evacuate due to the immediate threat of fire. Other township residents were told to shelter in their homes or warned that they faced several days of isolation without electricity.

State Assistant police commissioner Alan Clarke said mandatory evacuation orders would be enforced in some areas, describing the risk as "far more extreme" than in past fires.

"Police will be doing forced evacuations if the risk is necessary," Clarke told reporters.

"At the end of the day we hope we have buildings standing, but if we don't have buildings standing we don't want bodies in them."

Wildfires are common in Australia's summer months, which run from December-February. But an unusually dry and warm winter and record spring temperatures has seen the 2013/14 fire season start early.

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FIRE STORM
Australia wildfires destroy homes, darken Sydney skies
Sydney (AFP) Oct 17, 2013
Hundreds of homes are feared to have been destroyed by intense wildfires that tore across southeastern Australia in ferocious wind conditions Thursday, darkening Sydney's skies with smoke and ash, firefighters said. Five major blazes were burning across the state of New South Wales, fanned by high, erratic winds in unseasonably warm 34 degree Celsius (93 Fahrenheit) weather, as infernos in t ... read more


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