Australians Battle Blazes at Beaches and Mountains
Reuters News Service, Jan. 4, 2002
SYDNEY (Reuters) - Exhausted Australian firefighters battled bush fires threatening beach and mountain towns on Friday as officials predicted a return of the extreme hot, dry summer weather that sparked the fire crisis on Christmas Day.
"The news continues to be bad about the weather," New South Wales state premier Bob Carr told reporters Friday.
"The current conditions will continue. Sunday they will get bad, same Monday. There will be a dangerous combination of high temperatures, winds and low humidity."
Some 10,000 firefighters, most of them volunteers, are trying to contain more than 100 fires, many lit by arsonists, on fronts totaling 1,250 miles along Australia's east coast.
Two massive blazes posed the greatest threat -- one burning along the Blue Mountains west of Australia's biggest city, Sydney, and another on the New South Wales state's south coast.
The fires, the worst since a 16-day-old 1994 crisis when four people died, have destroyed 172 homes and burned an area twice the size of greater London.
So far, there have been no deaths in this year's fires. Fire official Cameron Wade said one 50-year-old firefighter suffered second degree burns to his feet while fighting a blaze at Oberon on western foothills of the Blue Mountains Friday.
The fires have left an estimated $36 million trail of destruction and cases of arson have sparked widespread public anger.
OUTRAGE OVER ARSON
Police have arrested 23 suspected firebugs, one as young as nine. A police spokesman told Reuters a 16-year-old girl was also being questioned over a fire in Sydney's northwest.
Carr has foreshadowed tough new laws which would force young arsonists to face burns victims and those who have lost homes in the fires as well as being made to clean up fire-affected areas.
"That is designed unapologetically to have a traumatizing effect on young people who've set alight areas of bushland," said an angry Carr.
"Our goal here is to take these young people by the scruff of the neck and rub their noses in the ashes that their behavior has generated," he said.
With lower temperatures and gentler winds Friday, firefighters managed to keep many of the fires at bay. Fire official John Winter had predicted a "scary" day for Blue Mountains residents as the fire licked at their small townships.
Holidaymakers in the small south coast resort town of Bendalong spent Thursday night on the beach as firefighters battled a huge 9,140-acres blaze which a day earlier swept through another town only a few beaches north.
Bendalong was covered by an eerie blanket of smoke on Friday and the town's only road remained cut off. Fire officials said there was little chance of containing it.
"It's moving fairly slowly and it's going to take some time to get there," Wade said.
Scattered along the nearby beach were mattresses, chairs, tables and a baby's cot where holidaymakers had spent the night. Bush fires flared across New South Wales state on Christmas Day, fanned by bone-dry 95-degree Fahrenheit heat and 45 mph winds.
A newly arrived U.S. helicopter saved 14 firemen in the Blue Mountains Thursday, dousing flames in dense bushland.
The firemen were isolated as they fought a massive blaze nicknamed the "Burragorang Beast" after driving their truck into a burned-out area of bush Thursday afternoon.
"The flames were crowning the treetops, it was a fireball," fireman Chris Tierney, 20, told local media Friday.
As the inferno roared toward them, the firemen pulled out emergency fire blankets ready to huddle inside their truck. A desperate radio call for help saw a giant "Sky Crane" helicopter, which can drop 1,980 gallons or nine tons of water at a time, push back the flames.
"Elvis saved us, absolutely," said fireman Darrell Pascoe, referring to the nickname firefighters have given the U.S. helicopter used by the U.S. National Guard in Memphis, Tennessee.
"Elvis" and the thousands of firefighters, many of them volunteers who have taken time off from their jobs to fight the flames, have been described as heroes for their unstinting work.
"The people that are fighting the fires are not only capable in what they do, they are giants as far as I am concerned," said Sydney electrician Brett Scott, one of those who sheltered on Bendalong beach Thursday night.
Australia's most deadly fires swept through Victoria and South Australia states in 1983, killing 76 people.
Fanned by stifling heat, fires race toward Sydney
The Boston Globe, Jan. 4, 2002
SYDNEY - Weary Australian firefighters faced an alarming day today as two massive bushfires raged around Sydney, and forecasters predicted more of the searing heat, which sparked scores of fires on Christmas Day.
Some 10,000 firefighters are facing 100 fires across southeast New South Wales state, many lit by arsonists, on fronts totaling 1,250 miles. The fires have destroyed 160 homes, burned an area twice the size of Greater London, and caused damages estimated at $36 million.
Fire official John Winter told Australian television the two giant fires licking the perimeter of Sydney - one burning along the Blue Mountains west of the city, and another on its south coast - posed the greatest threat.
''It's certainly going to be scary as the fire works its way up [the mountains],'' Winter said.
Visitors to the small south coast resort town of Bendalong spent last night on the beach, as firefighters battled a blaze covering 14 square miles, which a day earlier had swept through another town only a few beaches north. Early today, Bendalong was covered by an eerie blanket of smoke, making the small surf lapping the beach barely visible.
Scattered along the beach were mattresses, chairs, tables, and a baby's bed, where tourists had spent the night.
''We opted for the beach last night because the fire was right behind the cabin,'' said Sydney electrician Brett Scott. ''We are staying where we are told instead of trying to weave our way [home] through the fires.''
Firefighters warned that milder weather would not bring any relief. ''The moderate conditions will play havoc with fire strategy because the fires are so erratic now,'' Winter said.
What's worse, more hot weather is on its way. ''It's starting to get serious again from Sunday and into Monday,'' said weather official Kevin O'Loughlin.
There have been no deaths from the fires, while police have arrested 22 people for arson, one as young as 9.
Aided by a ''Sky Crane'' helicopter dropping nearly 2,000 gallons of water at a time, firefighters worked through the night forcing back flames around the small mountain town of Woodford.
''I am going to stay with my house until told to evacuate,'' Woodford resident Bill Marrow said last night as he watched burning ash fly.
The ''Black Christmas'' fires, as they have become known, are the most intense since 1994, when four people were killed. Australia's most deadly fires swept through Victoria and South Australia states in 1983, killing 76 people.
This story ran on page A3 of the Boston Globe on 1/4/2002.