Australia’s Capital City Faces Its Worst Wildfire Threat in 17 Years

By Jason Scott | January 29, 2020

Canberra, Australia’s capital that’s surrounded by bush, is facing its worst wildfire threat in 17 years as a blaze sparked by a military helicopter approaches the city amid heatwave conditions.

Residents in Canberra’s southern suburbs should be vigilant after the out-of-control fire threatened the village of Tharwa overnight, authorities said on Wednesday. The capital is again shrouded in thick smoke that’s plagued much of southeast Australia for months in an unprecedented wildfire season that’s burnt out land almost the size of England and killed at least 31 people.

Weather forecasters predict “increasingly challenging fire weather for the coming weekend, driven by extremely high temperatures and low humidity,” the Australian Capital Territory’s Emergency Services Authority said.

While no properties were immediately under threat, the fire has burnt 9,500 hectares since starting on Monday by a landing light on a helicopter carrying soldiers sent to clear space for aircraft during the fire season.

Temperatures in Canberra are forecast to reach 42 degrees Celsius (108 degrees Fahrenheit) on both Friday and Saturday. That’s raising concern that the fires could worsen; on Tuesday night, flames were visible in elevated areas of the city.

The so-called “bush capital” of about 400,000 people, nestled between forested mountains and farmland 180 miles southwest of Sydney, was born in the early 1900s when rolling sheep paddocks at the foot of the Australian Alps were selected as the site of the capital, as a compromise to those arguing for either Sydney or Melbourne. It’s worst fire was in 2003, when four lives and about 500 homes were lost.

While the government has acknowledged that climate change has played a role in the severity of the crisis, it has rejected demands to take stronger steps to curb greenhouse gas emissions amid fierce criticism at home and abroad over its environmental policies.

Instead, Prime Minister Scott Morrison insists the nation must become more resilient to the impacts of a changing climate, even as he supports moves to open new coal mines.

Canberra’s fire threat amid a crippling drought in southeastern Australia comes even as areas in the country’s north face flooding amid huge downpours.

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