November 22, 2009

Australia Issues ‘Catastrophic’ Fire Warning

Authorities are asking residents in some parts of south Australia to evacuate their homes as an impending heat wave prompted the nation to issue its first "catastrophic" brush fire warning.

Unseasonably hot and dry weather combined with strong winds to fan scores of blazes in the country's southeastern states, many of which were sparked by overnight lightning strikes.

Nathan Rees, New South Wales state premier, says, "It has never been this hot, dry or windy in combination in November ever before."

The warning system was put in place to better alert residents after a devastating brush fire ravaged the southeastern state of Victoria in February, killing more than 170 people and destroying 2,000 homes.

During that fire, many residents stayed to defend their property.

Though authorities still cannot mandate that people leave, the new warning system urges people to flee.

Across New South Wales five major blazes were raging out of control and RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said crews were racing against time to contain the flames ahead of a forecast worsening in conditions.

The Code Red "Catastrophic" warning was issued for the Eastern Eyre Peninsula and West Coast districts in the state of South Australia.

Such a rating means that even well-constructed and defended homes might not be safe from the blaze, the South Australian Fire Service said.

A total fire ban was issued for much of NSW for Sunday, including in Sydney, the country's most populous city, meaning. People will not be allowed to burn rubbish or have barbecues due to the high risk.

Any fire that breaks out will be uncontrollable, the fire service said. People in their path will likely die, it added.


Image Caption: A thick plume of brownish smoke billowed from the Western Australia coast and over the Great Australian Bight on November 19, 2009, when the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA's Aqua satellite passed overhead and captured this natural-color image. The area where MODIS detected actively burning fire is outlined in red. This stretch of the southern Western Australia coastline is remote, and much of it is protected as the Nuytsland Nature Reserve. According to the state Department of Environment and Conservation, the fire was triggered by lightning in the second week of November, and it had burned about 30,000 hectares (74,130 acres) as of November 20. NASA image by Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team. Caption by Rebecca Lindsey.