Bushfires hit Sydney as crews battle to save homes

Bushfires hit Sydney as crews battle to save homes

Smoke from a large bushfire is seen outside Nana Glen, near Coffs Harbour, Australia, on Tuesday. (Reuters photo)
Smoke from a large bushfire is seen outside Nana Glen, near Coffs Harbour, Australia, on Tuesday. (Reuters photo)

SYDNEY: Isolated bushfires broke out in Sydney on Tuesday, fanned by strong winds and soaring temperatures as Australia’s largest city faced its first ever “catastrophic” fire danger.

Authorities battled about 10 blazes in mostly northern suburbs of the city, which is dotted with national parks and bushland, often close to homes. An emergency warning was issued for the affluent neighbourhood of South Turramurra, just 20 kilometres north of the CBD, before a plane brought the blaze under control by dumping red fire retardant.

More than 70 wildfires are burning across New South Wales state, devastating rural areas left tinderbox dry by a two-year drought. Three people have been killed and more than 150 homes destroyed in the state in recent days -- a disastrous and early start to the nation’s bushfire season considering summer has not even begun.

As people returned home from work Tuesday evening, a smoke haze blanketed Sydney’s skyline. Conditions are expected to worsen, with a strong southerly wind forecast to hit the city in the early evening.

Authorities issued multiple emergency warnings for fires burning about 300km north of Sydney and further up the coast, and said in some instances it may be too late for residents to safely leave. More than 3,000 firefighters were deployed or on standby across the state and hundreds of schools were closed as a precaution.

Australia is the world’s driest inhabited continent and is considered one of the most vulnerable developed countries to global warming. According to the weather bureau, climate change is influencing the frequency and severity of dangerous bushfire conditions, with the season starting earlier in spring in southern and eastern parts of Australia.

The fires come amid increasing divisions about climate change policy in Australia, with the conservative government resisting scientists’ calls to take greater action to reduce carbon emissions.

It’s the first time authorities have set the highest warning level for Sydney since the six-step fire-danger rating system was introduced a decade ago. The city has experienced wildfires in the past, with dozens of homes destroyed in suburbs around national parks in 1994. In 2013, bushfires in New South Wales destroyed more than 200 homes, including many in the Blue Mountains to the west of Sydney.

The nation’s most devastating fires, the so-called Black Saturday blazes in Victoria state in February 2009, caused 180 fatalities.

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