Australian Bushfires Blaze Out of Control

SYDNEY, Australia, January 4, 2002 (ENS) - Nearly 20,000 exhausted firefighters are struggling to contain at least 80 fires blazing across New South Wales today. No lives have been lost, but an estimated 170 homes have been burned.

The worst of the fires is threatening the towns of Woodford and Faulconbridge in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. Some fires in Sydney's northern suburbs have been contained, but smoke hangs over the city and nearby Albion Park.

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Rural Fire Service Commissioner Phil Koperberg (Photo courtesy RFS)
In view of the weather forecast for high summer temperatures, low humidity and strong winds, Rural Fire Service Commissioner Phil Koperberg says there is no end in sight to the bushfires. He has declared a total fire ban for the entire state of New South Wales - no fire of any kind may be lit in the open.

More than 70 aircraft are still dropping water and fire retardant on the stubborn bushfires that broke out on Christmas Day.

Hundreds of firefighters have been treated for injuries, and close to 50 have been taken to hospitals. On Thursday, one firefighter battling a blaze near Oberon, west of the Blue Mountains, was rushed to hospital with burns to his feet.

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Australian bushfire (Photo courtesy CSIRO)
Many of the fires appear to have been deliberately set. Police have arrested 23 arson suspects, most are male teenagers, but a 14 year old girl was arrested yesterday.

New South Wales Premier Bob Carr told reporters he plans to take young arsonists "by the scruff of the neck" and make them face the horror of what they had done.

To finally douse the fires, Australian officials have pinned their hopes on help from the United States in the form of two large firefighting helicopters from Erickson Air-Crane Inc. of Central Point, Oregon. They are renting the two choppers that can take up 3,500 gallons of water in 45 seconds and release it to douse the flames. But a record snowstorm in Atlanta, Georgia yesterday grounded the Antanov cargo plane chartered to fly the Air-Cranes from Oregon to Sydney.

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An Erickson Air-Crane drops fire retardent in Oregon. (Photo by Kari Brown courtesy Erickson Air-Crane)
Minister for Emergency Services, Bob Debus, who represents the Blue Mountains in the New South Wales Parliament, said the local authorities should be helped to improve procedures for burning off excess forest fuels in advance of the summer bushfire season.

Since the bushfires broke out, 400 State Emergency Service (SES) volunteers have been supporting the Rural Fire Service removing dangerous trees, securing hazardous buildings, readying for evacuation. "Every volunteer on one of our crews in the field has, at a minimum, training in general rescue, teamwork, working with the public, first aid and radio communication," said Mim Humphries, SES deputy division controller for the Sydney Southern Division, who has been coordinating SES assistance from the Rural Fire Service Incident Management Centre at Picton.

The NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service is currently managing 50 bushfires on national parks and reserves. Fires are burning on at least 355,000 hectares (877,205 acres) of protected bushland. One of the parks on fire is Blue Mountains National Park, part of the massive Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area which contains.

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The Wollemi Pine found only in the Blue Mountains' Wollemi National Park (Photo courtesy Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney)
The Blue Mountains area has one of the highest numbers of threatened plant species in Australia. Some species are found nowhere else in the world. More than 90 different eucalypt species are found in the Greater Blue Mountains – 13 percent of all eucalypt species in the world. The blue mist covering the landscape is produced by the eucalypt forests, which release fine droplets into the air.

Throughout the state’s pine plantations, state forests’ staff is on alert for fires, manning fire towers, fire control rooms and various field locations where fire fighting units are positioned.

State Forests’ Monaro regional manager, Graham Gray said, State Forests’ staff would be on their toes to protect life, property and the state’s valuable softwood resource throughout this fire season, which could last until April.

NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service says that before the colonization of Australia, Aboriginal people used planned fires to create a mosaic pattern of vegetation of different ages. Since the arrival of European settlers, bushfires have become more frequent and more intense.