January 7, 2013 – Australia braces for “catastrophic” wildfire day: Australia was bracing on Monday for days of “catastrophic” fire and heat wave conditions, with fires already burning in five states and as a search continued for people missing after devastating wildfires in the island state of Tasmania. Pictured above, houses destroyed by a bushfire are seen in ruins in Dunalley, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) east of Hobart.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard toured fire-ravaged Tasmanian townships and promised emergency aid for survivors, who told of a “fireball” that engulfed communities across the thinly-populated state on Friday and Saturday.
“The trees just exploded,” local man Ashley Zanol told Australian radio, recounting a wall of flames that surrounded his truck as he carted water to assist fire crews in the hard-hit township of Murdunna, largely leveled in the inferno.
Tasmanian police said around 100 people feared missing in bushfires had been accounted for and there had so far been no deaths as authorities combed through still-smoldering ruins of homes and vehicles, while evacuating local people and tourists.
Bushfires were ablaze in five of Australia’s six states, with 90 fires in the most populous state New South Wales, and in mountain forests around the national capital Canberra.
Severe fire conditions were forecast for Tuesday, replicating those of 2009, when “Black Saturday” wildfires in Victoria State killed 173 people and caused $4.4 billion (2.7 billion pounds) worth of damage.
A record heat wave, which began in Western Australia on December 27 and lasted eight days, was the fiercest in more than 80 years in that state and has spread east across the nation, making it the widest-ranging heat wave in more than a decade, according to the Australian Bureau of Meteorology.
Tuesday would bring the highest “catastrophic” bushfire temperature conditions, said fire officials, under which people are advised to flee if fire threatens, as the blaze is likely to be too fierce for fire crews to easily extinguish.
“Any fire that burns under the predicted conditions — 40 degree (Celsius) temperatures (104 Fahrenheit), below 10 percent humidity, winds gusting over 70 kilometers an hour (43mph) — those conditions are by any measure horrendous,” said New South Wales Rural Fire Service Deputy Commissioner Rob Rogers.
In the Australian capital Canberra, hit by a firestorm in 2003 that destroyed hundreds of homes, authorities said they were expecting the worst conditions in the decade since, with a fifth day of searing temperatures and strong winds.
“With those winds it boosts up the fire danger significantly,” the city’s deputy fire Chief Michael Joyce told local reporters.
Blazes sparked by weekend lightning storms were already burning in forests surrounding the sprawling lake-and-bushland city, as they did 10 years earlier. (Credits – Rob Taylor for the Star Online and Reuters, Australian Map by Google).
The Master of Disaster