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Bushfires blaze on in Australia's southeast

Climate change cited as a factor in unusual spring blazes, a cause dismissed by the prime minister.

Last Modified: 23 Oct 2013 14:23
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Sydney, Australia - Unprecedented bushfires continue to rage around Australia's biggest city, raising concerns about the effects of climate change and the possibility of a dangerously hot summer ahead.

The unusual spring blazes have scorched communities in the Blue Mountains to Sydney's west, in the Greater Hunter region in the north, and through the Southern Highlands.

Firefighters are still battling 71 fires, 29 of which are uncontained, with three at emergency level. More than 200 homes have been destroyed in New South Wales since last Thursday. One man died after suffering a heart attack trying to protect his home in Lake Munmorah on the state's central coast. Meanwhile, thousands of residents evacuated their homes, and 21 schools across the state shut down.

Firefighters deliberately linked two large blazes on Tuesday through a controlled burn to prevent them from merging with a third fire - a brave move that has been credited with saving hundreds of properties. 

"We are seeing positive results of these very deliberate, very targeted, very decisive strategies," said state Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons.

The world's largest fire service has been mobilised to fight the blazes. The New South Wales Rural Fire Service has more than 2,000 volunteer rural fire brigades, with a total membership of 70,000. 

Extreme conditions in the fire zones prompted authorities to declare a state of emergency, and residents in all areas affected by the fires were warned on Tuesday to make plans to evacuate.

"Never before have we seen the extent of damage and destruction and wide-scale fire activity at this time of the year," Fitzsimmons said.

A choking black haze stretching to the coast has reduced air quality, causing a spike in hospital admissions for respiratory illnesses throughout Sydney.

Meanwhile, residents in the danger zones have been kept up to date by traditional and social media from the NSW RFS, with Facebook and Twitter accounts quickly alerting people to changing conditons. Users have also shared many striking images from the fires online.

Why now?

The blazes have several causes. An investigation by the fire service found the Department of Defence is responsible for starting the largest blaze, the State Mine fire, which has burned for more than a week and destroyed 47,000 hectares. That fire was ignited by exploding artillery during a training exercise. The Department of Defence has yet to finish its own investigation.

Australia bushfires rage out of control

In a separate incident, two boys aged 11 and 15 have been charged with arson, accused of intentionally lighting a destructive blaze at Heatherbrae near Newcastle. Yet another fire is thought to have been caused by sparks from overhead electrical wires.

On top of that, the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre has forecast "above normal" fire potential for the 2013-14 fire season in large areas of southern Australia, particularly the east coast where the blazes continue. This forecast increase is due to a build-up of fuel in grasslands areas, combined with higher average temperatures causing grass to dry out.

Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre CEO Gary Morgan told Al Jazeera that despite the forecast, bushfires are a natural phenomena in parts of Australia. "It is important to remember that there are many areas where the bushfire risk is classified as normal. Australia is a fire-prone country, and normal bushfire conditions in the Australian context still mean that there will be fires," Morgan said.

The lead researcher of Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), Justin Leonard, told Al Jazeera the region is exposed to significant fire risk. "We can expect significant losses in many bushfires to come. The people that live in those areas have a significant task to adapt their current homes to be able to be effective in how [they] perform in bushfire situations".

Climate change fears

Although bushfire is endemic to Australia, a senior United Nations official said climate change was also likely at work in the recent blazes.

"What is absolutely clear is the science is telling us that there are increasing heat waves in Asia, Europe, and Australia; that these will continue; that they will continue in their intensity and in their frequency," said the head of the UN's climate change negotiations Christiana Figueres.

But Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott rejected the suggestion. "I think the official in question is talking through her hat," Abbott told radio station 3AW"Fire is a part of the Australian experience. It has been since humans were on this continent. These fires are certainly not a function of climate change - they're just a function of life in Australia."

Paul Gilding - an independent writer, advisor and advocate for action on climate and sustainability - told Al Jazeera he hoped these fires would encourage greater conversation about climate change. 

"The point is: Fires will come earlier and be more intense as the world heats up, and therefore these things are in line with what we will get more of from climate change. Once people start having that conversation and looking at the science and looking at it rationally, they'll conclude that this is a very serious threat to Australia."

Australia's federal government has drafted legislation to remove the carbon tax, instead promoting a Direct Action Plan to encourage polluters to reduce emissions.

While the dangerous "firestorm" weather conditions have passed, authorities have warned that unpredictable winds could blow embers, igniting spot blazes.

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Al Jazeera
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