Australia’s ‘black Christmas’ as fires rage


At least nine people have been killed this fire season as various uncontained blazes burn across several states. The NSW Rural Fire Service on Tuesday confirmed 873 homes and 2048 outbuildings have been destroyed, while another 353 homes have been damaged. Those figures are expected to rise significantly with teams still assessing properties believed lost in recent days. A further 100 homes are also believed to have been lost since Thursday, but they’re still being assessed due to limited RFS access.

A total of 73 fires were burning throughout the state on Tuesday night, including the huge Gospers Mountain blaze northwest of Sydney, the Green Wattle Creek fire southwest of the city and the Currowan bushfire on the South Coast. Some 28 blazes remain uncontained with more than 2000 firefighters and volunteers working to reduce them.

A ‘watch-and-act’ alert was issued on Tuesday for the 116,000-hectare Kerry Ridge bushfire in the Wollemi National Park, since downgraded to ‘advice’ level. Meanwhile, more than 2000 firefighters are making crucial preparations before conditions deteriorate again across NSW this weekend.

RFS commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said there had been a moderation in conditions, an increase in humidity and moisture in the air which suspended backburning operations from about midnight on Monday.

Rain is forecast for coastal NSW north of Newcastle on Christmas Day, while Sydney will have a 50 per cent chance of rain and a maximum of 26C. Easterly winds will also shift the smoke haze blanketing the city.

“There’s very extensive backburning that’s going on across a number of these key fire grounds, and particularly some backburning that’s very close to properties,” Mr Fitzsimmons told Sky News on Tuesday.

Burnt bushland is seen from the air as Prime Minister Scott Morrison tours the bushfire affected regions of the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney. Picture: AAP/Wolter PeetersSource:AAP

Crews were busy establishing these lines on Monday night and would resume backburning as soon as the elevated humidity clears, Mr Fitzsimmons said. Warmer and windier conditions are expected into the weekend and early next week. However the RFS isn’t expecting a repeat of the kind of fire danger levels seen a few days ago, Mr Fitzsimmons said.

“We’re really trying to consolidate as much as we can, secure protection as best we can ahead of what’s expected to be hotter, drier and, this time, a bit more northerly in the winds,” he said.

Those northerlies would have the potential to drive the Gospers Mountain and Grose Valley fires down towards the townships of the Blue Mountains along the Great Western Highway.

“So there’s a lot of really difficult, challenging, risky work that continues to be going on and will continue to go on over the coming days, right through the Christmas period,” Mr Fitzsimmons said.

Meanwhile, many holidaymakers have been left stranded by extensive road closures caused by the bushfires.

Live Traffic NSW said hundreds of kilometres of roads, including major highways and busy arteries, around the state were closed in both directions.

The closures include a 70-kilometre stretch of Bells Line of Road, between Kurrajong and Lithgow, in the state’s west, with diversions in place at the Great Western Highway.

Also in the south-west, a 20-kilometre stretch between Tahmoor and Hill Top — the areas surrounding Balmoral — remained shut on Christmas Eve.

However, there has been some reprieve, with the Princes Highway south of Nowra reopening after being closed in both directions overnight.

In the state’s north, the Gwydir Highway has also reopened.

Controlled back burn in Lithgow. Photo: Jeremy Piper

Controlled back burn in Lithgow. Photo: Jeremy PiperSource:News Corp Australia

Barossa Helicopters for a fly over the Cudlee Creek in the Adelaide Hills bushfire zone on December 23, 2019. A fire continues to burn near Birdwood. Picture: Naomi Jellicoe.

Barossa Helicopters for a fly over the Cudlee Creek in the Adelaide Hills bushfire zone on December 23, 2019. A fire continues to burn near Birdwood. Picture: Naomi Jellicoe.Source:News Corp Australia

Long-term weather forecasts do not predict significant rainfall until January or February.

The federal government, meanwhile, has announced Commonwealth public service volunteers will get at least four weeks paid leave to fight bushfires under a plan to get more “boots on the ground”.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison called on big business to follow suit. “What this will mean, as a big employer, on top of what is done by the defence forces and some of the other agencies, is this will enable them to be able to commit more time in their brigades and relieve particularly those in small and regional towns,” Mr Morrison told reporters.

“We’re seeking to be a model employer about how we do this.” Mr Morrison also admitted a longer Australian fire season and overlapping periods of major fire danger for states may require policy change, but said “social media is not going to set government policy”.

“The longer-term planning and the longer-term policies … that’s what you do in the sober light of day post-event,” Mr Morrison said.

In South Australia, firefighters are still working on the Adelaide Hills bushfire as part of efforts continue to eliminate the danger of flare-ups within its 127-kilometre perimeter.

A watch and act advice remains in place for the Cudlee Creek and Duncan fires, with the Country Fire Service warning of unpredictable conditions.

Suppression activities, blacking out and patrolling were conducted on Tuesday as crews race to combat more extreme fire weather later this week. “Weather conditions are currently favourable. Light winds are forecast for the next few days, gradually increasing to very hot and windy fire danger conditions by the weekend,” the CFS said.

“There are a significant number of trees still smouldering creating a risk of them falling.” Most roads within the 25,000 hectare fire ground have reopened, allowing local residents to inspect their properties.

So far, more than 80 homes have been destroyed, along with almost 500 other buildings.

Agricultural losses are also growing, with about 1100 hectares of vineyards thought destroyed or damaged, equal to about one-third of the area’s grape production, while cherry farmers were hard hit.

Premier Steven Marshall visited the fire ground on Monday and is expected to announce more funding to help victims of the blaze along with those impacted by other fires around the state.

So far, about 40,000 hectares have been burnt across SA with the Adelaide Hills fire claiming one life.

In Western Australia there is one emergency warning fire in the goldfields region, in parts of Cundeelee.

In Victoria, two watch and act emergency warnings remain in place for Tamboo Crossing and Brookville.

In East Gippsland, bushfires burning since 21 November have already burnt through 50,000 hectares.

“We suspect these fires will burn for some weeks, if not months,” CFA chief officer Steve Warrington said.

“We have a few days of respite where we’ll be putting in stronger control lines.

“We will try to build this control line so that fire doesn’t run out of there and we can fight it within these lines, but the reality is that these fires are active and very dangerous.”

megan.palin@news.com.au | @Megan_Palin





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