Exodus from the Blue Mountains: Hundreds more flee Australia bushfires as firefighters claim largest blaze was sparked by a military training exercise
- Dozens of Australians drive down mountains fearing their homes would be destroyed by a wall of fire
- Parents clutched precious possessions while their children cuddled pet dogs, cats and guinea pigs
- Investigators say massive fire near Sydney ‘started as a result of live ordnance exercises’ at army range
- Revelation drew anger from mayor in Blue Mountains, which has been ravaged by several fires in past week
- Around 3,000 firefighters are tackling 71 blazes, including 29 which are burning out of control
- Nearly 100 aircraft were deployed, but 50mph winds forced water-bombing helicopters to suspend operations
- All schools closed in region in anticipation of worsening conditions as winds shower communities with embers
Scores of Australians have evacuated their homes in mountains west of Sydney as intensifying winds fanned wildfires that have ravaged the region for days.
As they fled, fire investigators today claimed the largest of the wildfires that have ravaged New South Wales this week was sparked by a military training exercise.
The massive fire near the city of Lithgow, west of Sydney, began on October 16 at a nearby Defense Department training area and ‘was started as a result of live ordnance exercises’ at the army range, the Rural Fire Service said in a statement.
The fire has burned 47,000 hectares (180 square miles) and destroyed several houses, but no injuries or deaths have been reported in the blaze.
Tales of a scorched earth: Firefighters look on as a helicopter drops water to contain a spot fire near Faulconbridge, in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney
It was downgraded from the highest emergency category on Wednesday.
The Defense Department declined to comment on the findings, but had earlier confirmed that an explosive ordnance training exercise was conducted October 16.
The Defense Department was also investigating any link between the exercise and the fire.
The revelation drew anger from Mark Greenhill, mayor of the community of Blue Mountains, which has been ravaged by several of the fires over the past week.
‘I would have hoped on a day like that – which was a dry day, a hot day, with the winds – the Australian military would have known it wouldn’t be a good time to be igniting,’ Greenhill told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.
New South Wales Premier Barry O’Farrell came to the military’s defense.
‘I want to ensure that this doesn’t detract from the efforts that Defense have made over the past week in assisting the state’s emergency services battle these fires,’ he told the Seven Network.
The development came as residents in the Blue Mountains drove down ahead of a wall of flames today, with precious family heirlooms stuffed into bags.
Parents tried not to think about what they had left behind, what they would find when they were finally able to return – as their children cuddled pet dogs, cats, guinea pigs, and birds fluttered in their cages.
Horse floats crammed with ponies and even a herd of alpacas – the direction was only one way and that was down from the fiery front that swept down through the Blue Mountains west of Sydney.
The winds are showering communities with embers and all schools were closed in anticipation of worsening conditions in the Blue Mountains. The region lost more than 200 homes to blazes last week.
As the New South Wales bushfire crisis entered its seventh day, Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzimmons said 71 fires are burning in New South Wales state around Sydney, including 29 which are out of control.
He said three fires raging to the west of Sydney could be at risk of joining into one fire front, dubbed a ‘mega-fire’.
‘This is as bad as it gets,’ he said.
Authorities advised Blue Mountains residents who were not prepared to defend their homes from fire to leave for evacuation centres in Sydney, or Lithgow to the west. One centre in west suburban Sydney was housing 120 evacuees.
About 3,000 firefighters, including 1,000 out-of-state reinforcements, were battling the blazes.
Mr Fitzsimmons said: ‘Whatever unfolds throughout the afternoon today, there will still be a lot of fire edge that firefighters are going to have to continue to deal with through tomorrow, the coming days and coming weeks.’
A total of 95 firefighting aircraft were deployed, but winds up to 50mph forced the water-bombing helicopters to suspend operations over fires at Lithgow and the Blue Mountains during the day, Fire Service spokesman Ben Shepherd said.
Temperatures in the fire zones rose above 32C, and weather conditions were forecast to be the worst since last Thursday, when many of the homes that burned last week were lost. One death has been blamed on the fires.
The early start to the fires this year ‘is indicative of the unseasonably hot, dry conditions that have been building now throughout winter into spring, and we need to remind ourselves that we still have a long way to go as we look down the coming months into summer’, Mr Fitzsimmons said.
Springwood resident Rae Tebbutt said the atmosphere was tense in the village that was one of the worst-hit last week.
‘Everyone is terrified,’ she said. ‘I’ve got three friends who have lost everything.’
Meanwhile, as fire threatened, priceless paintings by 19th century artist Norman Lindsay were removed from his gallery in the Blue Mountains town of Faulconbridge, where the 1993 movie Sirens – starring Hugh Grant, Elle MacPherson and Sam Neill – was shot.
Fire officials said they were gratified that to date no-one had lost their life to the flames, although the toll on wildlife was, in the words of one animal rescue group, ‘unimaginable’.
Mr Greg Keightly, a wildlife rescue co-ordinator in the Blue Mountains, said burned animals that had managed to emerge from their destroyed habitat included wallabies, possums, lizards, echidnas and birds.
‘Many are distressed, they’ve been burned and they’ve been badly affected by smoke,’ he said as volunteers treated the animals.
An appeal also went out for people in the region to keep a cardboard box and a towel in their cars so they could pick up any distressed animal they came across.
But at a showground near the town of Richmond at the foot of the Blue Mountains hundreds of pets were in safe hands after being brought down from the mountains.
There was a pig named Oprah – ‘because she’s big and smart’ said owner Heather Smith – which wallowed in a mud bath, a parrot called Princess and a cat called Ginger were among the animal population brought to safety.
As the loss of houses ran towards the 300 mark, weary firefighters were sickened to hear that two boys aged 14 and 11 had been held by police for deliberately starting fires in the Newcastle area north of Sydney.
And two other boys were arrested for allegedly stealing from a cafe a charity collection box containing donations for those who had lost all their possessions.
But officials were also concerned about stupidity, with people calling in to Sydney radio stations to ‘dob in’ motorists who carelessly threw burning cigarette ends from their car windows.
This, said one caller, was one of the problems that had arisen with modern cars which no longer contain ash trays.