Sydney fire fighters gain upper hand
By Grant Holloway
SYDNEY, Australia (CNN) -- Australia's fire fighters finally appear to be gaining the upper hand in the 15-day battle with the infernos that have raged across the state of New South Wales.
While blazes across a 40 kilometer (30 mile) front are still creating problems and forcing evacuations to the south of the city of Sydney, heavy rains on Monday have created much-needed breathing space.
Some interstate fire crews are starting to return home, water-bombing aircraft are being brought in for maintenance and total fire bans have been lifted, at least temporarily, in metropolitan Sydney.
Fire authorities say a big effort is still required to control the perimeter of the firefront across the state however, and warn that thousands of spot fires are still possible, particularly as warmer and drier conditions return.
State Rural Fire Commissioner Phil Koperberg told media Tuesday that while conditions had improved considerably, fire fighters had "a massive task ahead of them" to mop up the fires.
He warned that fires could easily re-ignite as tree roots smoldered undetected for days, and said he had personally seen already burnt areas of bushland catch fire again.
While no lives have been lost, the NSW fires are the most devastating in the state's history with nearly 6,000 square kilometers (4,000 square miles) of land burnt and 170 properties destroyed.
As Sydneysiders enjoy their first clear blue skies and smoke-free air in two weeks, climate-change experts are warning that more such damaging fires are inevitable.
They say the onset of global warming will make summer droughts more common in Australia, significantly increasing the numbers of "extreme fire danger days".
Professor Ian Noble of the Australian National University says while average temperatures may lift only one or two degrees, the effect creates longer periods of very dry or very wet weather.
Australian cities such as Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth and Hobart would become increasingly vulnerable to bush fire infernos such as those just experienced in NSW.
Australia's dry summers and vast tracts of combustible eucalyptus forest make bush fires a frequent event, but the expansion of city suburbs into native bush areas over the past few decades has increased the damaging impact of the infernos.
For example, in 1994, bush fires in NSW burned out of control for 13 days, killing four people, while 1968 fires, which burned intermittently for four weeks, resulted in 14 deaths.
But perhaps Australia's worst fire disaster was the Ash Wednesday holocaust in the southern states of Victoria and South Australia in February, 1983.
Those fires killed 76 people and destroyed around 3,000 homes.
Almost as tragic were the fires that swept through the forestry towns of rural Victoria in 1939 that resulted in 71 people losing their lives.
With Sydney now starting to count the cost of the latest inferno, thoughts are turning to measures to reduce the impact of any future fires.
Sydney, a city of 4 million people, has extensive bushland areas fringing the city and punctuating deep into suburban areas, often to within just a few kilometers of the central business district.
The correct management of these areas to reduce fire danger to homes while still preserving the integrity of the bushland is set to became a major battleground between councils, environmental groups and residents' organizations over the next few years.
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