Australian Firefighters Get Relief as Cooler Weather Arrives

Australian firefighters are getting relief from cooler weather and cloud cover in eastern states after a weekend when temperatures climbed and lightning strikes ignited new bushfires.

A southerly wind change eased the fire risk in the south of New South Wales yesterday, and was forecast to provide further relief in the rest of the state and into southern Queensland today, according to the Bureau of Meteorology. In Bourke, about 760 kilometers (475 miles) northwest of Sydney, temperatures that reached as high as 48 degrees Celsius (118 degrees Fahrenheit) yesterday are forecast to drop to 37 degrees today.

Emergency services yesterday were forced to let several fires in isolated areas burn out of control as they focused on containing blazes that had the potential to damage property. Firefighters will use the cooler weather expected today and tomorrow to bring more fires under control because there is a risk of deteriorating conditions later in the week.

“We’re going to have some fairly favorable conditions over coming days but the forecast is, as we move toward the end of the week, for more hot air” to warm the state, New South Wales Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said in an Australian Broadcasting Corp. interview today. “We’re still in the middle of the fire season and we’ve got a long way to go.”

Homes Destroyed

There were still 170 fires burning in New South Wales, 50 of them uncontained, Fitzsimmons said. In Coonabarabran, a town 450 kilometers north-west of Sydney, 12 homes were destroyed overnight and parts of the Siding Spring Observatory damaged, the fire service said.

Temperatures in Sydney, which reached 42.3 degrees last week, are forecast to peak at 24 degrees today. Queensland’s state capital, Brisbane, may reach 31 degrees.

Yesterday, more than 1,000 firefighters were in the field battling blazes mainly in northern New South Wales. Police had to evacuate some homes near the Warrumbungle National Park when one fire broke out. Fire bans were in place in a number of regions around the north and west of the state where the winds, temperature and low humidity created extreme conditions.

“The fires are running very, very hard once they take hold,” New South Wales Deputy Fire Commissioner Rob Rogers told Sky News yesterday. “It’s only going to take one fire in the wrong spot that could cause a lot of problems.”

Lightning Strikes

Queensland firefighters faced 40 blazes yesterday as lightning strikes and soaring temperature created severe conditions.

Fire danger ratings in most parts of Victoria state have declined to moderate, according to the Country Fire Authority.

In Tasmania, where more than 3,000 people were forced from their homes last week, strong winds fanned a blaze at Fawcett and residents were urged to stay vigilant, according to the island state’s fire service.

Australia’s hot, dry climate makes bushfires a major risk in the southern hemisphere’s summer. The continent registered a national average of 40.33 degrees Celsius on Jan. 7, the hottest day in more than 100 years of records.

The worst fires in the nation’s history, the so-called Black Saturday blazes, killed 173 people as they swept through rural areas of Victoria state in February 2009.

In Western Australia, forecasters are watching Severe Tropical Cyclone Narelle as it tracks off the coast of the resource-rich state. The storm last week triggered the evacuation of off-shore natural-gas workers for Apache Corp. and Chevron Corp. and saw Rio Tinto Group suspend iron-ore loading onto ships because of port closures. Ports have since reopened.

Narelle was downgraded today to category 2 on a scale of 1 to 5, where 5 is the strongest. It was moving south and wasn’t expected to make landfall, while the speed of winds at the storm center had declined, the Bureau of Meteorology said on its website.

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