MOUNT VICTORIA: Firefighters were racing to tame an enormous blaze in southeastern Australia on Monday with officials warning it could merge with others to create a “mega-fire” if weather conditions worsen.
Crews have been battling fires that flared in high winds and searing heat across the state of New South Wales last week with more than 200 homes so far destroyed and many others damaged.
While dozens of blazes have been contained, 58 were still alight and 14 of them were out of control, enveloping Sydney in a thick white smoke haze that prompted warnings for people to stay indoors and avoid exercise.
The main concern on Monday was near the town of Lithgow west of Sydney where a huge fire that has already burned nearly 40,000 hectares was threatening the communities of Bilpin, Bell, Clarence and Dargan.
Officials fear intensifying heat and winds on Tuesday and Wednesday could push it into another blaze at nearby Mount Victoria in the Blue Mountains and then move towards the populated areas of Katoomba and Leura.
“I don’t think I’ve ever used the word mega-fire,” said New South Wales Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons.
“But the reality is that the modelling indicates that there’s every likelihood that in the forecast weather conditions that these two fires, particularly up in the back end of the mountains, will merge at some point.”
Firefighters spent the night and much of Monday building containment lines to try to prevent such an event, ahead of a predicted deterioration in weather conditions.
Another major fire around the Springwood area of the Blue Mountains, where almost 200 houses were razed last week, escalated to the emergency declaration level along with another in Wilton, southwest of Sydney.
“The fire grounds remain dynamic and challenging for firefighters and are particularly susceptible to the wind and the elevated temperatures that we are experiencing,” Fitzsimmons said.
But the fire chief played down earlier suggestions that all communities in the Blue Mountains, where 76,000 people live, could be evacuated.
“We are not planning a mass evacuation of the Blue Mountains community,” he said.
Instead authorities were taking “a very targeted approach to securing and protecting all the communities.”
An emergency warning was issued for the Blue Mountains village of Bell, where residents were urged to evacuate. Other township residents were told to shelter in their homes or warned that they faced several days of isolation without electricity.
This included people in the village of Mount Wilson, which was used as the backdrop for scenes in the recent Hollywood blockbuster The Great Gatsby starring Leonardo DiCaprio.
Amid the worst fire disaster in the state for nearly 50 years, New South Wales declared a state of emergency on Sunday, which gives firefighters the power to forcibly evacuate people, with penalties for refusing.
Emergency Services Minister Mike Gallacher said every possible resource was being used, including firefighters drafted in from interstate with the option that the military could be deployed.
With hundreds of people evacuated because of the encroaching flames, police revealed they were dealing with reports of looting from victims, although the number of incidents was small.
State Premier Barry O’Farrell called looters “scumbags” and vowed to track them down.
Meanwhile, an 11-year-old boy was charged with deliberately lighting two fires on the New South Wales Central Coast last week, one of which forced hundreds of people to flee their homes and saw the closure of Newcastle airport.
A 14-year-old youth faced similar charges over a blaze north of Sydney.
Wildfires are common in Aus-tralia’s summer months, which run from December to February. But an unusually dry and warm winter and record spring temperatures has seen the 2013/14 fire season start early with warnings of a long, tough summer ahead.