From: Rob Taylor, Reuters
Published December 5, 2006 12:00 AM

Australia Fears Super Fires as Temperatures Soar

CANBERRA — Australian firefighters fear dozens of bushfires in remote mountains in the southeast could join up to form major fire-fronts, driven by hot weather in the drought-plagued region.

Nearly 2,000 firefighters battled more than 50 blazes in rugged, inaccessible mountains of Victoria state as temperatures rose above 30 degrees Celsius (86 Fahrenheit).

"We are headed for probably the worst fire summer period we have ever had in Victoria. We don't expect these fires to go out," state Premier Steve Bracks told local newspapers.

Tourists were urged not to visit the popular Victorian Alps, where blazes have already destroyed more than 12,000 hectares (30,000 acres) of bushland.

As authorities moved to scramble more heavy water-bombing helicopters, firefighters said strong winds and high temperatures over coming days could fan the fronts and push fires more than 20 kilometres (12 miles) from current positions.

"It's expected in the next couple of days some of these fires will join together and form larger fires," environment department spokesman Kevin Monk said.

Firefighters say Australia faces an extreme fire danger this summer after a worsening drought left rural areas bone dry. Scientists fear climate change will bring more frequent higher temperatures and less rainfall to parts of Australia.

In neighbouring New South Wales, fire crews were fighting blazes threatening to wipe out one of the last remaining outposts of healthy koalas.

The fires are burning in the Pilliga scrub nature reserve, 350 km northwest of Sydney, which is home to one of the most genetically diverse koala colonies.

"The wind direction is against us getting in there and so we are just hoping for a change in the weather," a spokeswoman for Sydney's Taronga Zoo told Reuters.

The Pilliga fire closed a 118 kilometre stretch of one of Australia's major arterial roads, the Newell Highway, between Narrabri and Coonabarabran.

In the tinder-dry South Australian riverland, more than 170 firefighters were still struggling to control a blaze sparked by lightning which has burnt more than 115,000 hectares of scrub.

In January 2005, the deadliest bushfires in 22 years killed nine people in South Australia.

Four people were killed and 530 homes destroyed in Canberra in 2003. That same year, bushfires fuelled by drought ravaged a slice of Australia three times the size of Britain.

Source: Reuters

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