Australia firefighters start to gain upper hand
Firefighters in Australia took advantage of lighter winds Friday to get on top of a nine-day bushfire emergency as officials said the military could be liable for compensation after starting one of the worst blazes.
Thousands of largely volunteer firefighters have been battling infernos that have destroyed more than 200 homes, cost two lives, and razed more than 124,000 hectares (306,000 acres) across New South Wales state since last week.
The damage bill so far is estimated at Aus$138 million (US$132 million), according to the Insurance Council of Australia, with more than 1,000 claims made and many more expected over the coming days.
Operations are now being wound back although 57 bush and grass fires continue to burn with 23 yet to be contained. No property was currently under threat and none of the fires was considered an "emergency", the highest danger level.
"Cooler temperatures today, however residents should remain vigilant," the New South Wales Rural Fire Service said on its Facebook page.
A fire service spokeswoman added that crews were taking advantage of a drop in winds and temperatures to strengthen containment lines and continue aggressive backburning -- a tactic aimed at creating firebreaks to control the path of blazes.
"Overnight it has been backburning on most of those fires and patrolling the containment lines, as well as mopping up," she said, with more than 800 firefighters and 72 aircraft still deployed.
"With the cooler weather we want to strengthen those containment lines."
One of the biggest and fiercest infernos still alight -- which at one point had a perimeter of more than 300 kilometres (185 miles) and has ripped through nearly 50,000 hectares (123,500 acres) of land around the Blue Mountain west of Sydney -- was started by the military.
Defence chiefs apologised on Thursday for the blaze which was sparked by exploding ordnance on a live firing range last week and New South Wales Premier Barry O'Farrell said he planned to meet with Prime Minister Tony Abbott soon to discuss potential liabilities.
"Clearly at least seven or so homes were lost as a result of that fire," he told reporters.
"We need to see what's going to be done... we need to settle the compensation issues."
As firefighting efforts continued, the body of a pilot killed when his fixed wing water-bomber crashed in rugged terrain while tackling a blaze south of Sydney on Thursday was recovered.
An ambulance officer was winched into the remote area where the crash happened and confirmed father-of-three David Black, 43, was dead. But fires and strong winds had prevented rescue crews from retrieving the body.
The only other fatality so far was a 63-year-old man who had a heart attack while trying to protect his home from the flames last week. Deaths were minimised as residents heeded advice either to flee or seek refuge at evacuation centres.
Lightning strikes are believed to have sparked some of the blazes although several people, including young children, have been charged with deliberately starting fires.
Wildfires are common in Australia's summer months from December to February.
But an unusually dry and warm winter and record spring temperatures has seen the 2013-14 season start early with warnings of a long, tough summer ahead, sparking debate this week over whether climate change had played a part.