Firefighters use retardant to keep blazes from Canberra

The sky turning orange-red as bush fires burn near the town of Bumbalong, south of Canberra, yesterday. The Australian Capital Territory, home to the country's capital Canberra, declared a state of emergency on Friday in anticipation of severely hot
The sky turning orange-red as bush fires burn near the town of Bumbalong, south of Canberra, yesterday. The Australian Capital Territory, home to the country's capital Canberra, declared a state of emergency on Friday in anticipation of severely hot and windy conditions.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Uncontrolled fire near capital balloons to over 50,000 ha before conditions start to ease

MELBOURNE • Firefighters kept wild blazes fuelled by strong winds and soaring temperatures from reaching suburban areas of Australia's capital Canberra using airdrops of fire retardant to create a 2.5km-long defensive line late yesterday.

Three drops of the pink retardant created the line along the bottom of a mountain south of Canberra, the authorities said, with further drops planned for today.

Fire crews had so far been able to save all structures in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), home to Canberra, the authorities said.

"This has been a good firefighting day for us, in terms of protecting our cultural assets and critical infrastructure," ACT Emergency Services Agency commissioner Georgeina Whelan said yesterday evening.

"Our intent tonight is to undertake backburning operations to consolidate those containment lines."

There were fears earlier in the day that the blazes could reach Canberra's southern suburbs, threatening homes and lives as they did in 2003 when fires destroyed almost 500 houses and claimed four lives.

The sky along the Monaro Highway in the ACT turned orange-red yesterday as an uncontrolled blaze ballooned to more than 50,000 ha in size.

A major highway was closed and the authorities issued warnings for some residents that it was too late to evacuate, before conditions started to ease late in the day.

The territory declared a state of emergency on Friday in anticipation of the hot and windy conditions that are expected to last through the weekend.

Australia's devastating and prolonged bush fire season has killed at least 33 people and an estimated one billion native animals since September. About 2,500 homes have been destroyed and more than 11 million ha of tinder-dry bushland have been razed.

A second major fire was burning uncontrolled slightly farther south in the Snowy Monaro region of New South Wales (NSW) state yesterday, the same alpine area where an air tanker crashed on Jan 22 after dropping fire retardant, killing three American firefighters.

Temperatures exceeded 40 deg C in parts of NSW and the ACT yesterday, prompting widespread warnings for people to be alert to the potential fire danger.

Some fires were generating their own weather patterns, including thunderstorms, in Australia's southeast, the authorities said.

Around 20 fires were burning in Victoria state, with one at emergency level.

Away from the fire scenes, intense rainfall was forecast, with the authorities warning of potential "dangerous and life-threatening flash flooding".

"When it comes to the weather, it's really a tale of two states," Victoria Emergency Management commissioner Andrew Crisp said.

The months-long crisis has sparked renewed calls for Australia's government to take immediate action on climate change, with street protests urging Prime Minister Scott Morrison to reduce the country's reliance on coal.

Scientists say the bush fire disaster was exacerbated by climate change, coming on the back of a crippling drought that turned forests into a tinderbox and allowed blazes to spread out of control quickly.

Mr Morrison on Friday announced a A$2 billion (S$1.8 billion) energy deal with NSW - the country's most populous state - that will seek to reduce emissions and lower power bills.

REUTERS, BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 02, 2020, with the headline 'Firefighters use retardant to keep blazes from Canberra'. Print Edition | Subscribe