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Military-caused fire threatens homes in Australian capital; more heat to come

by Ben Doherty, The Guardian |

Homes in the Australian capital cit of Canberra were expected to come under threat from a bushfire Tuesday evening as an out-of-control blaze in the Orroral Valley – accidentally lit by a military helicopter – ran towards the southern edge of the city.

The 20,000-acre blaze has been downgraded to “watch and act” level following moderate weather conditions overnight, and no properties were under threat on Wednesday morning. But predicted Canberra temperatures in the high-90s for the rest of the week and over 100 degrees F on the weekend are set to worsen fire conditions.

The blaze was started in the Namadgi national park, a rugged mountainous area to Canberra’s south, by an Australian Defence Force helicopter carrying a landing light, the heat from which sparked the blaze in hot and dry conditions.

Late Tuesday afternoon, residents of Tharwa, a village of about 80 people to Canberra’s south, were told it was too late to leave and they should seek shelter as the fire front approached.

The fire was running out-of-control, burning north and north-east, with embers lighting spot fires up to five kilometres ahead of the main front. Fire authorities said it was erratic, and was large and intense enough to create its own weather pattern.

The ACT emergency services agency said it expected spot fires to start with one kilometre of homes in Canberra’s most southerly suburbs, Banks, Calwell, Gordon, and Conder.

Flames were visible from southern Canberra back yards Tuesday evening. Thick plumes of smoke were visible all over the city.

The ACT’s chief minister, Andrew Barr, warned the fires were the most serious fire threat to the ACT since the 2003 bushfires, which killed four people and destroyed 470 homes.

Evacuation centres have been opened across Canberra for people displaced by the fires.

>> Fire conditions worsen in NSW, Victoria

More fires could flare again across New South Wales and Victoria with an extreme heatwave expected for parts of both states on Friday, while a slow-moving low pressure system is pushing torrential rain across Queensland.

In NSW “it looks like fire danger is ramping up as we head into the weekend and Saturday will be the peak day”, according to the Bureau of Meteorology’s David Wilke.

Friday would be the peak day in Victoria, bringing high humidity, hotter conditions and winds picking up, senior forecaster Richard Carlyon said.

Temperatures were expected to increase from Wednesday in NSW, rising to the low 100s on the south coast Saturday and 105 to 109 degrees F in the Australian Capital Territory. Western Sydney could experience temperatures of up to 113.

In Victoria, temperatures are expected to reach 111 to 113 degrees F across the north of the state Friday.

The fire risk in NSW is predicted to escalate from Friday, with the south coast, southeast regions and ACT likely the worst affected, and northern NSW also experiencing bushfire danger through to Sunday, according to the Bureau of Meteorology.

The NSW Rural Fire Service says warm, dry and windy weather has led to a total fire ban being issued for the southern ranges Tuesday. There’s also very high fire danger in the central and southeast regions of NSW.

NSW residents were encouraged to prepare for tough conditions this weekend.

A cold front is expected to move through NSW Monday or Tuesday next week, bringing the extreme temperatures back down.

Storms are expected Friday afternoon across western Victoria, bringing much needed rain to the region, but the rainfall is unlikely to be widespread in the east.

>> Wind gusts and torrential rain sweeps north Queensland

However, North Queensland communities are braced for more heavy rain after more than 19 inches fell in some places in just over 24 hours since Monday.

Water levels rose quickly in the town of Ayr, just south of Townsville, after an extraordinary deluge dumped 18 inches, starting at 9 a.m. Monday.

Burdekin mayor Lyn McLaughlin said the Bruce Highway was cut between Ayr and Home Hill, on the southern side of the Burdekin River.

Roads in Ayr itself were also closed with only emergency vehicles allowed to pass.

Rita Island, just south of Ayr, has had even more rain – 24 inches since 9am on Monday.

The deluge is being driven by a slow moving tropical low sitting over the waters of the Gulf of Carpentaria, which is also bringing wild weather to that region.

Winds gusting to 55 mph and more torrential rain is expected on Tuesday and into Wednesday, with flash flooding possible at Burketown, Normanton, Croydon, Kowanyama, Mount Isa, Cloncurry, Julia Creek, Georgetown, and Richmond.