New front opens in Australia fires as schools closed, power cut

High temperatures trigger warning of 'catastrophic' fires in South Australia as utility cuts power to reduce fire risk.

    Australia has been battling devastating fires on the east coast for weeks. Now, rising temperatures in the south threaten to open a new fire front there [Dan Himbrechts/AAP Image via Reuters]
    Australia has been battling devastating fires on the east coast for weeks. Now, rising temperatures in the south threaten to open a new fire front there [Dan Himbrechts/AAP Image via Reuters]

    Electricity firms cut off power to thousands of people, more than 100 schools were closed and residents in high-risk regions were poised to evacuate on Wednesday as Australia's devastating bushfires opened up a new front in the south of the country.

    Australia has been battling fires which have endangered thousands of people over the past few weeks. At least four people have died so far this month in fires that have burned across about one million hectares (2.5 million acres) of farmland and bush and destroyed more than 300 homes.

    On Wednesday, a fresh battle line was drawn as 50 fires sprung up in South Australia state, where officials lifted the fire danger warning to "catastrophic" as temperatures passed 42 degrees Celsius (107.6 degrees Fahrenheit).

    A catastrophic warning means that should a fire start, it would not be possible for firefighters to control it, given the weather conditions.

    "From sunrise until well past midnight, this state is going to experience very difficult fire conditions," Brenton Eden, assistant chief officer at the South Australian Country Fire Service, told Australian Broadcasting Corp radio.

    As some of the fires approached electricity transmission lines, provider SA Power Networks cut power to about 10,000 customers.

    "With fire conditions expected to continue well into this evening, be prepared for a potentially extended outage before it is safe to restore power supply," the company tweeted.

    With strong winds stoking blazes, authorities put residents near four of the fires on high alert to flee in the event they spread rapidly.

    "This is the worst of the weather from a fire behaviour point that we will have seen,” Eden told reporters in Adelaide, the state capital.

    Australia is prone to bushfires in its dry, hot summers, but the recent series of fierce blazes have started early, in the southern spring, after a three-year drought that has left much of the country tinder dry.

    While the immediate threat was in the south on Wednesday, firefighters continued to battle about 100 fires that have been burning for several days across Australia's east coast.

    Sydney, the country's most populous city with approximately five million residents was covered with thick smoke cloud for the second day running. Health officials on Tuesday warned people in the harbour city to stay inside as the smoke reached hazardous levels.

    SOURCE: Reuters news agency