Australia Firefighters Battle Blazes, Brace for Worse

Michael Heath

(Bloomberg) -- Australian firefighters struggled to control blazes across the nation’s parched east coast ahead of a forecast of renewed strong winds and higher temperatures that are likely to fan the flames.

Four people are dead and more than 300 homes have been razed in the state of New South Wales, while an estimated 2.5 million acres of farmland and bush have burnt in what have been early and extraordinarily fierce wildfires for the southern hemisphere’s spring.

The Bureau of Meteorology issued a warning Saturday afternoon for northeast New South Wales, saying “very warm and dry westerly winds will generate elevated fire danger” over the region through the weekend. It forecast “severe fire danger” for the Far North Coast, New England, Northern Slopes and North Western areas.

Hundreds of fires have raged in Australia this week, sparking debate on whether Prime Minister Scott Morrison is doing enough to curb emissions and whether climate change is worsening the fire season in what is already the world’s driest inhabited continent. His conservative government has snubbed calls to discuss the impact of climate change in drought-affected rural areas, saying its full focus should be on extinguishing the blazes and helping victims.

As of Saturday morning, 59 bush and grass fires were burning in New South Wales, with 13 yet to be contained, according to the Rural Fire Service. Firefighters overnight strengthened containment lines by back-burning -- where fires are deliberately lit to clear dry undergrowth -- around the Gospers Mountain northwest of Sydney.

Meantime, a 51-year-old man was charged after allegedly lighting a fire northeast of the New South Wales regional city of Armidale in a back-burning attempt to protect a cannabis crop. The blaze, allegedly lit Thursday, is still burning out of control on the Northern Tablelands.

Most national parks on the mid-north coast of the state, including in the northern Blue Mountains, will remain closed until further notice as fire danger remains very high to severe, the state Office of Environment and Heritage said.

Further north in Queensland, firefighters are strengthening containment lines as 60 fires burn across the state. In Western Australia, “catastrophic fire danger” is forecast for some districts on Sunday.

There’s little prospect of respite either with dangerous weather conditions forecast into next week.

(Updates with forecast for Western Australia in penultimate paragraph)

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