Australia fire threat eases as military blamed
A water-bombing aircraft crashed Thursday as the furious mayor of an area worst hit by Australia's bushfire emergency demanded answers after the military was blamed for starting a huge blaze.
Thousands of largely volunteer firefighters have been battling infernos for more than a week across the state of New South Wales that have destroyed over 200 homes, with the Blue Mountains region west of Sydney the focal point.
Cooler weather was helping Thursday, with major blazes downgraded, although authorities urged communities not to be complacent with 66 fires still alight, 24 of them uncontained.
So far only one person has died although there were fears for the pilot of a fixed-wing aircraft that went down in a remote area south of Sydney as it responded to a blaze near Ulladulla.
Reports said a wing snapped off before the crash.
"We obviously hold grave concerns for the pilot," a NSW Rural Fire Service spokesman said.
One of the biggest and fiercest infernos still alight -- which has a perimeter of more than 300 kilometres (186 miles) and has ripped through 47,000 hectares (116,000 acres) of land -- was started by the military, a fire service investigation found.
The huge blaze, near Lithgow, was a major worry this week with authorities on Tuesday deciding to deliberately merge it through backburning with another nearby fire at Mount Victoria to preempt a deterioration in conditions.
NSW Rural Fire Service chief Shane Fitzsimmons said an official investigation found it was started by exploding ordnance on a live firing range on Wednesday last week.
"It wasn't deliberate, it was a side-effect of a routine activity ... and clearly there was no intention to see fire start up and run as a result of that activity," he said, adding that the military had fully cooperated.
The defence department is yet to comment on the findings, but Blue Mountains mayor Mark Greenhill was furious.
"I would have thought the community of the Blue Mountains is owed something," he told ABC television, adding that residents lived in fear for a 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 wasn't a good time to be igniting.
"The fire has caused great concern to my community, it's done damage to my community and it just shouldn't have happened."
So far, more than 124,000 hectares (306,000 acres) of land has been burnt across NSW in its worst bushfire emergency in nearly 50 years.
After dire warnings that extreme heat and strong winds would cause chaos on Wednesday, the high-risk strategies of aggressive backburning, building containment lines and strategic planning averted what had been feared to be a major disaster.
"There is no immediate threat across any of our fire grounds to people at this stage, but because they're (the major fires) all at 'watch and act', that signals that circumstances could change," said Fitzsimmons.
While homes have been destroyed, human fatalities have been minimised as residents heeded advice either to flee or seek refuge at evacuation centres.
With authorities beginning to scale down their mammoth eight-day fight, Fitzsimmons thanked all involved and apologised to people returning to gutted homes in the Blue Mountains.
"On behalf of the firefighters who are doing it so tough up there, we do apologise and regret that we weren't able to save everything.
"We are very acutely aware, because our teams are embedded in those local communities... there has been so much damage and destruction and people have lost everything.
"They did their best, and they will continue to do their best."