A state of emergency has been declared in Australia's most populous state and officials are saying that the 63 fires burning in New South Wales (NSW) present the worst fire danger seen in 45 years.
Seventeen of the fires are uncontained, and two, in Springwood and Lithgow, are classed as emergency situations. Three boys, age 11, 14, and 15, are being questioned by police on suspicion of lighting fires.
With temperatures remaining above 30°C and with wind gusts of up to 100 kilometres an hour, conditions favour the fires, and this weather is expected to continue. Firefighters fear a 300 kilometre fire front might join with a separate 60 kilometre fire (see map of current fires).
Ahead of the worsening weather, the NSW Rural Fire Service was conducting last-ditch back-burning operations – lighting small controlled fires in the path of large blazes so that no flammable material remains in the area, and the fire front cannot advance. These efforts were planned to strengthen containment lines at State Mine near Lithgow. Rural Fire Service commissioner, Shane Fitzsimmons, said the operations were risky but considered.
"If it comes off, and works, it's a wonderful firefighting effort," he told a press briefing. "But there is every likelihood investing in a strategy like that, that it will breach, that it will fail – and then you've got a fire that will cross over everything you've just tried to implement."
Primed for ignition
The worst property losses were caused by separate fires closer to Sydney in Springwood and Winmalee. More than 200 houses have been destroyed and at least one person has died so far.
The state of emergency gives authorities the power to force residents to evacuate and the right to demolish buildings that pose a danger, but so far these measures have not been used.
Climate models predict the worst fire weather will be increasingly common in NSW, but the ferocity of the current fires was not caused by particularly bad fire weather, says climate scientist Andy Pitman from the University of New South Wales in Sydney. Instead, it was the result of a very warm winter – the second warmest on record in NSW and part of Australia's warmest 12 months on record– which was probably caused by climate change, according to Pitman.
"Vegetation that would commonly basically shut down in winter continued to transpire," says Pitman. By continuing to give off water, the vegetation dried out the soil so that in spring, the plants had little access to water and became dry. That primed the landscape for fire: "Really hot days combined with strong winds plus ignition equals a major problem," says Pitman. More