Firemen were trying to control hundreds of blazes on Monday that were in danger of coming together to create a "super-fire" near Sydney, Australia. A state of emergency has been called in the worst-hit area of New South Wales, where crews have been fighting the bushfires since last week. More than 200 homes have so far been destroyed and many others damaged as Australia tackles its largest spread of wildfires in half a century.
Yesterday the situation was worsened by the heat and strong winds, and with the weather predicted to stay warm, the Rural Fire Service said many fires were "simply too big to put out". Firemen faced a "monstrous task" of dealing with walls of fire, steep terrain and unpredictable weather last night near Blackheath, a town in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, as they tried to halt a fire-front almost 200 miles long.
The largest fire, which started in the State Mine near Lithgow and has already burnt 40,000 hectares, threatened to move southwards and join another blaze at Mount Victoria that was creeping towards Blackheath, and nearby Katoomba and Leura. To the east it was in danger of spreading down a valley to join another wildfire near Springwood that had already destroyed 200 homes and jumped the river separating the mountains from Sydney's outer suburbs. In a high risk but targeted operation described by a fire service spokesman as "literally fighting fire with fire", firemen worked around the clock to start controlled fires in efforts to contain the bigger blazes so they could be managed until finally burning themselves out.
Despite more than 1,200 firemen being deployed, including 300 from other states, there was no estimate of how long the fires could continue to burn. Thunderstorms have struck in western parts of New South Wales and are heading east. However, they are expected to bring little rain, instead fuelling the infernos by bringing lightning and even stronger and more unpredictable winds.
"The lightning, if it does move across the state, is going to be a great concern to us," said a fire service spokesman. "Small amounts of rain actually hamper our fire-fighting efforts. While it can quieten down the fires for a short period, it actually makes it difficult to light back-burns." Shane Fitzsimmons, the Rural Fire Service commissioner, said a mass evacuation of the Blue Mountains was not planned, and that authorities were taking a "very deliberate, a very considered, a very targeted approach to securing and protecting all the communities".
The New South Wales government declared an unprecedented state-wide emergency on Sunday, giving authorities the power to forcibly evacuate areas and enforce penalties on people who refused to go. A 15 year-old and an 11 year-old have been arrested and the latter charged in connection with a large fire in the Central Coast area, which caused the closure of Newcastle airport.