Australia fire fighters back-burn to merge NSW fires

Satellite image shows scale of Australia bushfires. Image courtesy AFP/Nasa/Jeff Schmaltz

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Firefighters in Australia have deliberately joined up two large fires as part of efforts to control bushfires across New South Wales.

The fires near the Blue Mountains had been "tactically joined" to stop them merging with a third, officials say.

Teams are engaged in extensive back-burning operations across the state ahead of worsening conditions expected on Wednesday.

On Tuesday morning more than 60 blazes were still alight, with 13 uncontained.

The region experienced light rain but firefighters say this will not be enough to quench the fires.

New South Wales declared a state of emergency on Sunday amid some of the region's worst fires in years.

Bushfires (22 October)

  • There are still 60 fires burning in New South Wales (NSW), with 13 uncontained
  • A total of 117,400 hectares (290,102 acres) have been razed by the fires so far
  • More than 2,000 fire fighters are tackling the blazes
  • The NSW Rural Fire Service says 208 houses have been destroyed and 122 have been damaged
  • Linksview, Springwood has 109 houses damaged and 193 destroyed
  • There are 89 aircraft being utilised and 259 fire trucks used to fight the fires

Sources: NSW fire service, ABC, agencies

On Monday fire officials feared that three blazes in the Blue Mountains area near Lithgow - at State Mine, Mount Victoria and Springwood - could link up, creating a massive fire.

But NSW Rural Fire Services Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said that joining two of the fires had prevented them linking up with the third.

"We are seeing positive results of these very deliberate, very targeted, very decisive strategies being deployed particularly in relation to back-burning operations... particularly in light of [Wednesday's] weather conditions," he said.

Back-burning is controlled burning of key areas aimed at depriving a fire of fuel and prevent it travelling in a certain direction.

'Difficult day'

The fire at State Mine has been downgraded to "watch and act" - from "emergency" - after some light rain at the fire zone.

However, Mr Fitzsimmons added that "there's still a way to go" and that firefighters would be braced for higher temperatures and stronger winds expected on Wednesday.

"We have got now probably 24 hours before we see the worst of the weather starting to develop and build across all these fire ground areas," he said. The conditions on Wednesday would be "about as bad as it gets".

A fire fighter works to control flames near houses in Bilpin, Australia, 22 October 2013 More than 1,000 fire fighters are continuing to tackle bushfires in NSW
Burnt houses seen from inside a burnt-out car in the Blue Mountains suburb of Winmalee, 21 October 2013 The fires gutted cars and destroyed more than 200 properties
Local resident Alan Seaman walks through the remains of his home in the Blue Mountains suburb of Winmalee, 21 October 2013 Hundreds of residents have been left homeless

NSW Premier Barry O'Farrell told the BBC: "Tomorrow Wednesday in Sydney is expected to be the critical day when weather conditions return to what they were like last Thursday when these fires first started."

"Whilst we've lost more than 200 properties [and] another 100 or so damaged, many thousands have been saved by the efforts of our volunteer and other fire fighters who've done a tremendous job for almost a week."

Many families have their bags packed and are watching anxiously in case they are forced to flee, the BBC's Jon Donnison in the Blue Mountains reports.

Bushfires in Australia

Australia is often hit by bushfires during summer months from December to February. Causes can be lightning, arson, power-line arcing, dropped cigarettes or controlled burns that go wrong.

On 7 February 2009 a prolonged heat-wave and dry spell led to the Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria. The fires became Australia's worst natural disaster, killing 173 people and burning thousands of houses.

On 16 February 1983 almost 200 fires caused devastation across parts of Victoria and South Australia. Seventy-five people died in what became known as the Ash Wednesday fires.

In January 2013, parts of NSW and Tasmania were hit by fires as temperatures soared to record levels, with average national temperatures topping 40 degrees Celsius. One person died in Tasmania and several hundred buildings were destroyed.

In parts of Sydney that has been shrouded in a smoky haze for much of the week air quality levels are reported to have been up to 50 times worse than normal, our correspondent adds.

All schools in the Blue Mountains will be closed on Wednesday.

One man has died - possibly of a heart attack - while trying to protect his home. Hundreds of people have been left homeless by the bushfires.

On Monday, an 11-year-old boy in the Port Stephens area was charged with deliberately lighting two fires on 13 October. Another boy, 15, was also arrested over the fires, reports said.

Amid debate over the causes of the fires in Australia, United Nations climate chief Christiana Figueres told US broadcaster CNN bushfires were "absolutely" linked to global warming, hitting out at Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott's decision to repeal the carbon tax.

"We are really already paying the price of carbon," she said. "We are paying the price with wildfires, we are paying the price with droughts."

Mr Abbott has drafted legislation to repeal the carbon tax, introduced under the previous Labor government, which imposed a levy on the country's 300 biggest polluters.

The new prime minister, who says the tax cost jobs and forced energy prices up, wants to introduce a Direct Action plan under which farmers and industry will be paid to act to reduce emissions.

Satellite image showing the location of the fires near Sydney, Australia

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