'Uncharted territory' as bushfires rage across Australia's east

Firefighters struggle to contain about 17 blazes which remain dangerous in New South Wales and Queensland countryside.

    A large bushfire burns 50,000 acres (50,200 hectares) in the Wollemi National Park, 100km (62 miles) west of Sydney [File: David Gray/AFP via Getty Images]
    A large bushfire burns 50,000 acres (50,200 hectares) in the Wollemi National Park, 100km (62 miles) west of Sydney [File: David Gray/AFP via Getty Images]

    Australian firefighters have warned they are in "uncharted territory" as they struggle to contain more than a dozen out-of-control bushfires across the east of the country.

    About 100 blazes pockmarked the New South Wales and Queensland countryside, approximately 17 of them remained dangerous and uncontained late on Friday.

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    "We have never seen this many fires concurrently at emergency warning level," New South Wales Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons told public broadcaster ABC. "We are in uncharted territory."

    Bushfires are common in Australia and firefighters had already been tackling sporadic blazes for months in the lead up to the southern hemisphere summer.

    But this is a dramatic start to what scientists predict will be a tough fire season ahead - with climate change and unfavourable weather cycles helping create a tinderbox of strong winds, low humidity and high temperatures.

    So far, there have been no reports of fatalities, although there were incidents of building fires and people getting trapped in their homes.

    The fact the blazes were spread along a roughly 1,000km (620-mile) stretch of the seaboard left emergency services struggling to cope, even with the help of about 70 aircraft.

    "Today has been a difficult and dangerous day. Unfortunately, many people have called for help but due to the size and speed of the fires we couldn't get to everyone, even by road or helicopter," New South Wales firefighters said.

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    Authorities in the state said fires had breached containment lines and forced the closure of the Pacific Highway linking Sydney and Brisbane in two places, although one area has since reopened.

    On Queensland's Sunshine Coast, police ordered the total evacuation of Tewantin, a suburb of 4,565 people, before scaling back the order.

    In some areas, residents were stuck and told to simply "seek shelter as it is too late to leave".

    Local radio stopped normal programming and provided instructions about how to try to survive fires if trapped at home or in a vehicle.

    'Volatile and dangerous'

    Across the central coast, residents took to social media to post photos and videos of smoke-laden tangerine skies and flames engulfing storeys-tall eucalypts within sight of their homes.

    Authorities said some of the fires were creating their own weather conditions - pyrocumulus clouds that enveloped entire towns.

    Meanwhile, high winds flung embers and burned debris far ahead of the fires' front lines, depositing the dangerous detritus on the balconies and front yards of unsuspecting residents.

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    Firefighters moved from spot to spot trying to put out small fires caused by the falling debris.

    Strong winds and high temperatures are expected to ease into weekend offering the chance of some respite. But a prolonged drought and low humidity levels will continue to make circumstances combustible.

    "It's a very dynamic, volatile and dangerous set of circumstances," said Fitzsimmons.

    Earlier this month, some of the same fires cloaked Sydney in hazardous smoke for days, giving the city a higher concentration of particles per million than cities like Bangkok, Jakarta or Hong Kong.

    That prompted health authorities to warn Sydney residents with respiratory problems to avoid outdoor physical activity.

    Swathes of Australia have gone months without adequate rainfall, forcing farmers to truck in water at exorbitant cost, sell off livestock or leave their land to lay fallow.

    On Wednesday, Australia's government announced a package of low-cost loans worth about 1 billion Australian dollars ($690m), designed to help drought-stricken farmers struggling with the latest "big dry".

    Australia: In the Line of Fire

    101 East

    Australia: In the Line of Fire

    SOURCE: AFP news agency