Heatwave and high winds bring renewed wildfire threat in Australia


SYDNEY (Reuters) – Large swathes of southeast Australia were bracing on Thursday for a days-long heatwave that threatens to stoke bushfires that have been burning in the region for months.

FILE PHOTO: Dead trees mark the scorched landscape surrounding the Kangaroo Valley Bush Retreat after a wildfire in Kangaroo Valley, New South Wales, Australia, January 23, 2020. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

As firefighters and residents prepared for the heightened danger, the New South Wales (NSW) state government launched a six-month inquiry to examine both the causes of and response to this season’s deadly wildfires.

“We don’t want to waste the opportunity to take on board any recommendations we need to adopt ahead of the bushfire season this year… as we approach summer of 2021,” said Gladys Berejiklian, the premier of NSW, the country’s most populous state.

NSW state has been one of the hardest hit by bushfires, which started earlier than usual in September. Nationally, the blazes have burnt out more than 11.2 million hectares (112,000 sq kms), killed at least 33 people and about 1 billion animals and destroyed 2,500 homes.

Fire danger warnings were issued on Thursday for several areas in South Australia state, where temperatures were forecast to exceed 40 Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) and winds were expected to reach 35 km (22 miles) per hour. Among them was Kangaroo Island, a popular tourist destination that has already been razed by fires that killed two people.

The severe heat and high winds were then forecast to hit NSW and Victoria states from Friday, bringing the risk of dry lightning that could spark new life into some of the 120 fires burning across the three states or create new blazes.

Martin Webster, a NSW Rural Fire Service officer, highlighted the strains facing the state’s 74,000-strong volunteer brigade as the huge fires continued to burn.

“Our local crews have been actively involved in firefighting since August and we are still long way from being out of the woods, so we are talking six or seven months of firefighting,” Webster told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Australia relies on a largely volunteer firefighting force but the sheer scale of the destruction during the current wildfire season has seen the army and overseas colleagues join their ranks to help.

Here are Thursday’s key events in the bushfire crisis:

* There were 11 fires burning in the state of South Australia, 71 in New South Wales and 38 in Victoria.

* Family and friends of three U.S. firefighters killed in a plane crash in remote bushland last week were expected to attend a memorial service later on Thursday.

* Rating agency Moody’s on Wednesday warned that increasingly frequent and severe natural disasters related to climate change would likely put at risk the ‘AAA’ credit rating of the NSW state, where over 5.2 million hectares have burnt.

Reporting by Paulina Duran in Sydney; Editing by Jane Wardell

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