NOWRA, Australia: Cooler weather yesterday helped firefighters douse blazes across Australia which have destroyed a handful of homes and killed thousands of livestock, but some 30 still raged out of control.
After facing one of the highest-risk fire days in its history on Tuesday, shifting winds in hard-hit New South Wales state caused temperatures to drop significantly.
While the mercury topped 42 degrees Celsius (107.6 F) in Sydney on Tuesday, it only touched 25 degrees yesterday. The Victoria state capital Melbourne was down to 20, although hotter weather was forecast to return by the weekend.
The ratings on many bushfires were downgraded with none now at the “catastrophic” level which signifies that fires will be uncontrollable, unpredictable and fast-moving and that evacuation is the only safe option.
But NSW Rural Fire Service commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons warned against complacency, with new fronts breaking out despite the colder weather and a total ban on lighting fires still in place.
“It is far from over when it comes to the threat to New South Wales,” he told reporters in Bookham, a small village in Yass Shire west of Canberra where a fire has so far burnt out 16,000 hectares.
More than 2,000 firefighters worked through the day tackling some 140 blazes across New South Wales, Australia’s most populous state, with 30 of those uncontained.
But some were being brought under control, including a blaze at Deans Gap near Nowra south of Sydney, which was aerially waterbombed before fire crews cleaned up on the ground.
One home was earlier believed to have been lost in the state, at Jugiong, but Fitzsimmons said it now appeared to be an outbuilding or shed.
“It’s a tribute to firefighters across the state that we haven’t got any homes destroyed,” he said.
“But we’ve seen significant agricultural losses already been tallied up, thousands of hectares of pasture and crops, and stock in the thousands lost.”
New South Wales Premier Barry O’Farrell said an estimated 10,000 sheep had perished in the Yass area alone.
Wildfires are a fact of life in arid Australia, where 173 people died in the 2009 Black Saturday firestorm, the nation’s worst natural disaster of modern times.
Most are ignited naturally, but in Sydney’s west three teenage boys were charged with deliberately lighting a fire in bushland on Tuesday.
Victoria state has also been experiencing extreme conditions, with four homes destroyed and six people treated for minor burns or smoke inhalation from a bushfire in the farming community of Carngham, which was evacuated.
Authorities said the blaze was under control but it left some families devastated, including Ray Stone and his wife Gayle.
“Shattered. Not a thing (left), nothing,” Stone told reporters, adding that when he left home on Tuesday for nearby Ballarat he knew nothing about any fires.
“We didn’t know we needed to take anything. We didn’t know there was a fire on the way.”
Prime Minister Julia Gillard said the federal and state governments were working together and would support victims, declaring natural disasters in 37 regions to trigger emergency aid.
“Firstly, it’s all hands on deck fighting the fires, dealing with the emergency, and then we move into the recovery phase,” she said.
No deaths have so far been reported.
While it was initially believed as many as 100 people could be missing on the southern island of Tasmania after wildfires razed more than 150 homes over the weekend, police on Wednesday tempered concerns.
“We know there have been no significant injuries, which is amazing, and we are encouraged that we haven’t found any human remains at this stage,” said Tasmania’s acting police commissioner Scott Tilyard.
Some 30 bushwalkers had to be airlifted from mountainous forest in the state yesterday as fires forced the closure of tracks in the remote Tasmania Wilderness world heritage area.