MELBOURNE • Rising temperatures, lightning strikes and erratic winds are set to fan wildfires in Australia in the week ahead, officials said yesterday, with emergency crews already working day and night to contain more than 130 blazes.
The state of New South Wales, where 367 homes have been lost in the past week, reported 54 fires burning with 23 yet to be contained, fire services said in an update late yesterday.
A heatwave forecast for this week is expected to heighten dangers in the state. The fires have already claimed four lives across the country's east coast.
"We are expecting to see a worsening of conditions, particularly as we start heading into Tuesday and then continuing through Wednesday and Thursday again," New South Wales Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said.
Interstate crews and New Zealanders are expected to bolster firefighters' efforts from today in combating the blazes and to relieve volunteers.
Australia's bush fires are a common and deadly threat but the early outbreak this year in the southern spring has caused widespread alarm with summer still ahead.
The authorities in Queensland issued emergency warnings for part of the state, where nearly 80 fires were burning yesterday and as the region braced itself for more hot and dry weather in the week ahead.
"Until we get significant rainfall, the fires will not go out," Queensland's acting Fire and Emergency Commissioner Mike Wassing said in televised remarks.
Some of the fires have been deliberately lit. The authorities believe arsonists are behind several bush fires across New South Wales and Queensland, and have appealed to the public for information leading to more arrests.
IN NEW SOUTH WALES STATE
Number of fires reported burning.
Number of fires yet to be contained.
Number of homes that have been lost in the past week.
Among those suspected is a man who allegedly started a fire to protect his cannabis crop, sparking an out-of-control bush fire.
The police said a 51-year-old man appeared before a local court last Saturday charged with intentionally lighting a fire at Ebor in New South Wales state in an attempt to protect his cannabis crop.
The alleged bungled attempt last Thursday at back burning - a practice used by firefighters to clear the undergrowth that fuels fires - quickly spread the flames and the man did not try to extinguish the blaze, according to the police.
The Ebor fire is about 11,500ha in size - and was still burning yesterday. It was in the process of being controlled, the New South Wales Rural Fire Service said.
Scientists say Australia's fire season is beginning earlier and becoming more extreme as a result of climate change, which is raising temperatures and sapping moisture from the environment.
Growing calls to curb fossil fuels and drastically cut greenhouse gas emissions are being ignored by the country's conservative government, which is eager to protect its highly lucrative mining industry.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE