Australia: Bushfires threaten the capital | News | DW | 01.02.2020
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Australia: Bushfires threaten the capital

Wildfires are burning close to the Australian capital of Canberra amid hot and windy conditions. Fearful residents are reminded of fires in 2003 that destroyed some 500 homes in a single day.

Endangered residents in the Australian capital, Canberra, were warned to prepare to evacuate their homes on Saturday as an out-of-control fire burns close to the city.

Orange-red skies hovered over the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), in which Canberra is situated, as bushfires claimed more than 35,800 hectares (88,500 acres) of forest and farmland south of the city.

Authorities shut down a major highway out of Canberra and issued warnings for some residents that it was already too late to evacuate.

The region declared a state of emergency on Friday that has continued over the weekend.

Local authorities reported that the out-of-control "Orroral Valley Fire" in Namadgi National Park, located between Canberra and the bordering state of New South Wales, currently poses a threat to homes and infrastructure in Canberra's southern suburbs.

"The fire is growing and it may become unpredictable," ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr told reporters on Saturday. 

Read more: Wildfires: Climate change and deforestation increase the global risk

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Saving the animals! Australia after the fires

'May be deadly'

ACT Emergency Services Agency Commissioner Georgeina Whelan said the wildfire was making its own weather pattern and was closing in on the Canberra suburb of Tharwa in the south. Tharwa has been shut off by road closures since Saturday morning.

"The fire may pose a threat to lives directly in its path," Whelan told reporters. "Driving is extremely dangerous and may be deadly." 

Extreme hot and windy weather conditions have worsened wildfires in the capital and nearby regions, with temperatures soaring to 42 degrees C (108 degrees F). 

Whelan said spot fires were sparked by embers carried on winds up to 10 kilometers (6 miles) from the fire front and warned that some of those fires would eventually merge with the main fire.

Read more: Australia's rising prices the cost of nature's wrath

Firefighters race against time 

Saturday saw conditions in the ACT start to ease late in the day. The fire was downgraded from emergency level to the second level on a three-tier scale of danger because of the drop in temperatures and winds.

Firefighters kept wildfires back using airdrops of fire retardant to create a 2.5-kilometer (1.55-mile) defensive line. Three drops of the pink retardant created the line along the bottom of a mountain south of Canberra, authorities said, adding that more drops were planned for Sunday. So far, fire authorities had been able to save all structures in the ACT.

"This has been a good firefighting day for us, in terms of protecting our cultural assets and critical infrastructure," Whelan said. "Our intent tonight is to undertake backburning operations to consolidate those containment lines."

However, several blazes continue to burn at emergency levels in southeast New South Wales. Local Rural Fire Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said farming properties, including sheds and stables, had been destroyed by blazes but that no homes had been reported as lost on Saturday.

The ACT's state of emergency is the first in the territory since 2003, when bushfires claimed the lives of four people and destroyed nearly 500 homes in a single day.

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Fires — and controversy — rage across Australia

mvb/tj (AP, dpa, Reuters)

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