Friday December 23, 2005

Firefighters are bracing for a black Christmas as searing temperatures threaten to combine with low humidity and high winds to fan major bushfires across much of eastern Australia.

Extreme fire danger is current nationwide, with total bans in Victoria and NSW as temperatures soar towards 40 degrees Celsius in tinderbox conditions.

Sydney and Brisbane are forecast to reach 38 degrees Celsius on Saturday, while Melbourne is expecting 36.

ACT authorities have also extended a fire ban in the national capital until midnight on Saturday after Canberra residents remained under fire alert on Friday with temperatures in the high 30s.

The Victorian Country Fire Authority (CFA) said the western Wimmera region, Otway Ranges and Mornington Peninsula were potential bushfire hot spots.

North-eastern Victoria, ravaged by bushfires in 2002/03, is also on alert for any outbreak, with increased response levels activated.

Firefighters in the Grampians, in western Victoria, are maintaining a nervous vigil over a 220-hectare fire they contained with the help of aerial water bombers.

CFA spokesman Travis Hearn said eight small grass and scrub fires since midnight had all been contained quickly but the situation remained "risky".

"It will be extremely high temperatures, with over 40 degrees in some parts of the state, low humidity, wind gusts and a change coming through later in the day," he said.

"We're not sure exactly how much rain will be behind that change and of course storms bring the possibility of lightning, which can cause many fires in a short space of time."

In Queensland, campers were evacuated and more than 1,500 hectares of bushland was burnt after a fire broke out on the Blackdown Tablelands National Park, west of Rockhampton.

Two fires, believed to have been deliberately lit, were spotted burning in the park on Tuesday but had since joined together.

Queensland Premier Peter Beattie on Friday warned police would take action against anyone caught lighting fires.

"If a fire is started and someone loses their life, or extensive property, it can be life in jail," Mr Beattie said.

The NSW Fire Brigade has warned residents to be ready for any bushfire threat on Saturday, particularly in the Hunter Valley where it considers the threat the most serious.

"I urge all homeowners in urban areas near bushland in the Sydney, Hunter, Illawarra, Blue Mountains and central coast areas to take the time to ensure they are prepared," Commissioner Greg Mullins said.

About 25 fires in NSW were brought under control on Thursday afternoon, including a large blaze at Allambie Heights, on Sydney's northern beaches.

About 1,000 hectares of bush were destroyed in a fire at Condobolin, in the state's central west, while a 407-hectare blaze at Port Stephens, north of Newcastle, was brought under control.

NSW RFS Commissioner Phil Koperberg has declared a total fire ban for the state until midnight Saturday, with the central and far west, and northern Riverina, of most concern.

In South Australia, a waterbombing aircraft was sent to a bushfire near Burra in the state's mid-north, the largest of seven blazes reported throughout the state.

The Country Fire Service (CFS) said bushfires had been reported at Burra, Port Victoria on the Yorke Peninsula, Sheringa, Yeelana, Piccadilly, Cooke Plains and Kapunda.

The Port Victoria, Sheringa and Yeelana fires had been contained, and the Piccadilly blaze extinguished, a CFS spokesman said.

The township of Burra was not threatened by the bushfire, which was burning in scrubland, he said.

In Canberra where four people died and 400 homes were destroyed in the 2003 bushfires, Emergency Services on Friday extended the fire ban as forecasters predicted hot, dry and windy conditions on Saturday.

The fire danger will be very high to extreme.

Source: AAP News Service