NSW bushfires: 'High-risk' backburning strategies

By Adam Bennett, AAP staff

Rural Fire Service volunteers conducting back-burning in the Catherine Hill Bay area near Wyong. Photo / AAP
Rural Fire Service volunteers conducting back-burning in the Catherine Hill Bay area near Wyong. Photo / AAP

New Zealand is likely to send specialist fire fighting personnel soon to help battle the New South Wales bushfires, Prime Minister John Key says after speaking with State Premier Barry O'Farrell.

Mr Key said he'd spoken with Mr O'Farrrell earlier this afternoon to get an update on what is now the state's worst fire crisis in 45 years, "and to reiterate that New Zealand remains ready to assist if requested".

"Mr O'Farrell thanked me for the call and said the situation was serious with forecasts for high temperatures, low humidity and high winds over the next few days. It would be a challenging week."

Mr O'Farrell was aware of New Zealand fire fighters' capabilities after they assisted with bush fires in January this year "and would not hesitate to call for help if it was needed".

"I got the impression it was likely that we would send people at some stage."

New Zealand's National Rural Fire Authority head Murray Dudfield has already said he has teams on standby.

"If they were looking for some specialised all timber, remote rural firefighters we can certainly provide that,'' Mr Dudfield said.

The service sent specialist alpine and timber forest firefighters to Tasmania and Victoria when those states battled widespread bushfires last summer.

Across the Tasman, firefighters are deploying "high-risk" backburning strategies in the NSW Blue Mountains as they fight to save lives and homes.

More than 200 homes have already been lost in the fires that have raged west of Sydney since Thursday, and 59 fires were still burning this morning.

The great fear is that a "mega-fire" may form in worsening conditions on Wednesday.

Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons says firefighters are taking "considered" but risky moves to strengthen containment lines around the massive State Mine fire that flanks the mountains' northwest side.

Firefighters have successfully conducted backburning along more than 20 kilometres of Bells Line of Road.

But the move risked accelerating the feared joining up of the State Mine fire with a blaze at Mount Victoria, which authorities say is likely to happen in coming days.

Mr Fitzsimmons says the plan is "paying off" so far.

"If it comes off, and works, it's a wonderful firefighting effort," he told reporters on Monday morning.

"But there is every likelihood investing in a strategy like that that it will breach, that it will fail - and then you've got a fire that will cross over everything you've just tried to implement."

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STATE OF EMERGENCY


The commissioner also moved to allay fears of mass evacuations across the mountains after warning on Sunday that populated areas like Katoomba and Leura could be affected.

"We are not planning an exodus of the Blue Mountains but what I would say is, if you don't need to be in the Blue Mountains, don't go there," he said.

Residents in the tiny township of Bell were this morning again urged to evacuate ahead of temperatures in the mid-30s, low humidity and problematic winds around 25km/h.

A state of emergency declared on Sunday gives authorities the okay to force evacuations and even destroy buildings that pose a danger, but those powers haven't yet been used.

Premier Barry O'Farrell said no one wanted to force people to abandon their homes, but it could be necessary to ensure everyone's safety.

"We know there is understandable heartache about leaving property perhaps vulnerable. But if it's a choice between property or lives we should always go for lives," he told the Nine Network.

NSW Emergency Service Minister Mike Gallacher will meet with Federal Justice Minister Michael Keenan on Monday ahead of the military possibly joining the firefighting effort.

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LOOTERS


"Scumbags" who loot houses abandoned during NSW's devastating bushfires will be tracked down, Premier Barry O'Farrell says.

There's been no official confirmation of looting yet but reports that abandoned homes are being robbed are appearing on social media.

Mr O'Farrell says any looters will be caught.

"I'm just appalled that at these critical times, when people have been evacuated from homes or whether people have left homes because of fire dangers, that other scumbags in the community would front up and seek to rob them," he told reporters in Sydney.

"Communities are angry but importantly I know that police are determined to track these people down."

Mr O'Farrell called for calm despite a state of emergency being declared.

"The emergency services are planning for the worst case scenario," he said.

"Better to be safe than sorry after the event."

The premier, who is heading to the RFS headquarters for a briefing, said homes wouldn't be evacuated unnecessarily and implored people to heed the advice of authorities.

Anyone made homeless by the fires should head to an evacuation centre, he said.

"If they can stay with family and friends that will obviously be the most comfortable but if they can't arrangements have been put in place to provide emergency accommodation."

The remains of Zig Zag Railway's Rail Motor 2016 after a bushfire swept through the Australian heritage railway line near Lithgow in the Blue Mountains. Photo/ AAP, Supplied by Zig Zag Railway
The remains of Zig Zag Railway's Rail Motor 2016 after a bushfire swept through the Australian heritage railway line near Lithgow in the Blue Mountains. Photo/ AAP, Supplied by Zig Zag Railway

EMERGENCY FUNDS


The Australian federal government is being urged to reconsider changes it made to the eligibility criteria for bushfire victims to receive emergency funds.

The Disaster Recovery Payment is now being made available to victims of the NSW bushfires who have been injured or had their homes damaged or destroyed.

But the government has been criticised for changing the funding arrangements so those isolated from their homes or experiencing power shortages can't access payments as quickly.

Assistant Minister for Social Services Mitch Fifield said the changes were designed to help ensure those most in need received assistance first.

"The decision that the government has taken is to initially provide assistance to those directly and immediately affected by way of home being damaged or destroyed," he told Sky News on Monday.

But the government will continue to assess the situation as it develops, he said.

Shadow assistant treasurer Andrew Leigh said it was traumatic for many families in the Blue Mountains forced to live in evacuation centres.

He urged the government to be "a little more generous" and reconsider its changes so those unable to access their homes could receive the assistance payment.

"I think that's an appropriate use of taxpayer funds," he said.

Joint disaster arrangements between the federal and state governments are also offering help in the form of food, clothing and accommodation.

RUSSELL CROWE DONATES TO BUSHFIRE VICTIMS


Russell Crowe has donated $10,000 to a Blue Mountains foster father who lost his house in the NSW bushfires.

The Hollywood star made the donation from Singapore after hearing a story about Joe Moore, a man from Winmalee who cares for four foster children as well as his own three sons.

Mr Moore is a golf professional who lost his family home on Thursday and is staying at an evacuation centre in the Springwood Golf Club.

In a phone call to 2Day FM on Friday, Crowe's manager Grant Vandenberg said the actor wanted to make a donation.

"He was just about to take off from Singapore ... and to make a long story short he said please give Joe $10,000 from Russell," Mr Vandenberg said.

Read more:
The Conversation - Sydney fires caused by people and nature

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