Australia battles 50 fires in heat wave, sparking warning, blackout fears

Channel NewsAsia 11 Feb 17;

SYDNEY: Australian emergency services were bracing against "potentially catastrophic" fire conditions on Saturday, as firefighters battled nearly 50 blazes in the state of New South Wales, sweltering in a heat wave sweeping the country's east coast.

Weather officials fear temperatures could hit 48 degrees C (118.4 F) in some areas, setting a record for the state's hottest February day ever. People have been banned from setting fires, and some major sports events have been cancelled.

"It's not just another summer's day. This is as bad as it gets," Shane Fitzimmons, rural fire chief in the state, which was already battling 49 bush or grass fires by midafternoon, told reporters.

"The catastrophic ratings are what we could describe as beyond the conventional scale."

Thousands of people flocked to Sydney’s beaches to cool off, prompting warnings from lifeguards to stay close to shore and take precautions against the sun.

"We want people to be aware of signs of heat stress," a spokesman for the state's lifeguard service told Reuters. "The number one message for people is to stay hydrated, it’s crucial on a day like today."

The extreme heat roiling out of Australia’s desert interior will also push temperatures in the northeastern state of Queensland and the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), home to the capital, Canberra, to uncomfortable levels on the weekend.

Temperatures hit 47 C (117 F) in parts of New South Wales and ACT on Friday, putting pressure on the electricity grid and prompting plans by authorities to suspend supply in some areas.

Late on Friday, the Australian Energy Market Operator said the prospect of blackouts had been averted as the state cut back consumption.

But with similar gruelling weather expected over the weekend, residents cannot relax vigilance on power use, a spokeswoman for the body said on Saturday.

Businesses that halted operations to conserve energy included a paper mill, water treatment operations and Australia's largest aluminum smelter, Tomago. Many industrial users have contracts requiring them to take such action.

Racing officials in Sydney, Australia's largest city, postponed the Royal Randwick Race Meeting over fears for the animals' wellbeing in the heat.

New South Wales sports officials cancelled some Rugby League junior representative matches and all grades of cricket matches.

A weather change on Sunday may offer a breather, said Peter Zmijewski, a senior forecaster at the Bureau of Meteorology.

"For quite a few weeks, nights have been coming warmer and we haven’t had any changes to blow the heat away," Zmijewski told Reuters. "We may break this pattern tomorrow and Monday.”

(Reporting by Harry Pearl; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

- Reuters


Australia heat wave causes firms to power down but blackouts avoided
Channel NewsAsia 10 Feb 17;

SYDNEY/MELBOURNE: Major energy users in Australia shut down on Friday, and the public were asked not to go home and cook or watch television, averting big blackouts amid strained supplies as an extreme heat wave moved from the desert interior to the east coast.

The temperature climbed to 47 Celsius (117 Fahrenheit) in parts of New South Wales (NSW) state and the Australian Capital Territory on Friday, while Saturday is expected to see a record for the hottest February day on record.

The extreme heat caused power prices to soar to an unprecedented AUS$14,000 (£8,558) per megawatt-hour (MWh) as power stations struggle to meet skyrocketing demand for cooling.

Authorities had been preparing to temporarily suspend power to selected areas of New South Wales late on Friday to prevent overload just days after 40,000 homes and businesses lost electricity in the state of South Australia.

But the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) said late on Friday tight power supply conditions had subsided for the day, without power cuts to residents.

"AEMO can confirm that residential load shedding was not required at any point throughout the day ... predominantly due to reduced electricity consumption across the state," it said in a statement.

Earlier, NSW Energy Minister Don Harwin urged households and businesses to save electricity.

"Rather than going straight home and turning on the television and cooking, (you might) want to consider going to a movie, going out to a shopping centre, keeping the load low, every bit like that helps," Harwin told reporters in Sydney.

A paper mill, water treatment operations and Australia's largest aluminium smelter, Tomago, were among businesses that halted operations to conserve energy, with many industrial users required to do so under their contracts.

The Tomago smelter, which exports to Southeast Asia, Japan and China, is the single largest consumer of electricity in NSW and is jointly owned by Anglo-Australian group Rio Tinto and Oslo-based Norsk Hydro.

TOO HOT FOR ICE CREAM

Weather forecaster Olenka Duma said a build-up of heat in the vast interior outback was being pushed east across NSW, the country's most populous state.

"It was like the windows and doors were closed for a long time, and now a weather front has dragged the hot air here," Duma, an official of the Bureau of Meteorology, told Reuters.

It was even too hot for ice cream.

"I'm not doing any business today, I'm just sitting in the air-conditioning at home," said Ned Qutami, owner of six mobile ice cream bars in Sydney.

"People at the beach are either in the water or heading home. No one is hanging around to eat ice cream," said Qutami, who runs Sydney Ice Cream & Coffee in beachside suburbs.

The intense heat and power outages have sparked debate over energy security, after the market operator told power companies in South Australia state on Wednesday to switch off some customers' power supply for a short spell to manage demand.

South Australia depends on wind for more than a third of its power supply, and the wind died down at the same time as people started cranking up air-conditioners.

That was the latest in a string of power disruptions and electricity price spikes to hit the southern state, including a state-wide blackout that forced copper mines, smelters and a steel plant to shut for up to two weeks last September.

The problems have sparked a review of the national electricity market and energy policy on how to cope with rapid growth of wind and solar power and the closure of coal-fired power plants that have been essential for steady supply.

(Reporting by Jonathan Barrett and Sonali Paul. Additional reporting by Melanie Burton in Melbourne.; Editing by Michael Perry, Robert Birsel)

- Reuters


Australia warns of 'catastrophic' fire conditions amid heatwave
Channel NewsAsia 12 Feb 17;

SYDNEY: Australian authorities ordered the evacuation of some sparsely populated rural areas of New South Wales on Sunday (Feb 12) as bushfires, fanned by extreme heat and strong winds, raged across the state, threatening homes and closing roads.

A heat wave on Australia's east coast saw temperatures hit records in some parts of the state, creating conditions that officials said were worse than those preceding Victoria's 2009 "Black Saturday" fires, Australia's worst bush fire event that killed 173 people.

"This is the worst day we have seen in the history of New South Wales when it comes to fire danger ratings and fire conditions," Shane Fitzsimmons, the state's rural fire chief, told reporters.

"They are catastrophic, they are labelled catastrophic for a reason, they are rare, they are infrequent, and to put it simply, they are off the old conventional scale.

"It's not another summer's day. It's not another bad fire weather day. This is as bad as it gets in these circumstances."

The areas hit by fires are hundreds of kilometres from Sydney, the state capital.

Fitzsimmons said there were unconfirmed reports of homes, farm sheds and machinery being destroyed by fast-moving fires breaking containment lines.

There were no reports of injuries, but some firefighters were suffering from heat-related issues.

By Sunday afternoon, emergency warnings were issued for five rural areas. People were told to evacuate if they could, or seek shelter and avoid bush or grassland where it was too late to leave.

More than 2,000 firefighters, many of them volunteers, were battling 86 fires across New South Wales on Sunday afternoon, with 38 of them not under control.

A 13-year-old boy and a 40-year-old man were charged on Sunday for allegedly starting fires.

Temperatures climbed above 45 degrees Celsius in some parts. Dry and hot northwesterly winds coming from Australia's desert centre, some up to 75 kilometres an hour, were fanning the bushfires.

A southerly wind change associated with a cold front was forecast to arrive by early evening, the Bureau of Meteorology said.

Fitzsimmons said the front would eventually offer relief, but would create volatile conditions as it met the northwesterly flow.

Since Friday, heat wave conditions caused cancellation of major sporting events and put pressure on the electricity grid.

A paper mill, water treatment operations and Australia's largest aluminium smelter, Tomago, were among businesses halting operations to conserve energy on Friday.

While bushfires are common in Australia's arid summer, climate change has pushed up land and sea temperatures and led to more extremely hot days and severe fire seasons.

Australia has warmed by approximately 1.0 C since 1910, according to the biannual State of the Climate report from the Bureau of Meteorology and national science body CSIRO released in October.

The number of days each year that post temperatures of more than 35C was increasing in recent decades except in northern Australia, the report said.

Meanwhile, rainfall has reduced by 19 percent between May to July in southwestern Australia since 1970.

- Agencies/dt

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