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Australian Wildfires Threaten Sydney

October 23, 2013

Sydney, Australia, is suffering under a blanket of smoke and officials are sounding air quality alerts because of vast wildfires in the area. And it’s still early in the fire season. Steve Inskeep talks to Stuart Cohen for the latest.

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Vast expanses of Australia’s most populous state are engulfed in wildfires. A state of emergency has been declared. Though these fires are in lightly populated areas, the smoke is blanketing the country’s biggest city, Sydney, which is where we found reporter Stuart Cohen. Mr. Cohen, welcome to the program.

STUART COHEN: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So what’s it like where you are?

COHEN: Well, as you said, the city itself is pretty safe from the fires, but the smoke has been rolling in for days. At one point there were fires burning to the north, to the south, and to the west of Sydney. So basically Sydney was fenced in by fires. And there’s been smoke blowing into the city for days. It’s made for some very pretty sunsets and some interesting views of some of the city’s icons, the Opera House and the Sydney Harbor Bridge.

But it’s caused some very bad air quality and it’s been tinkering with the flights at Sydney’s airport. There’s been some problems with flights going in and out of Sydney’s airport. But the smoke has been thick…

INSKEEP: Do you smell it?

COHEN: You can smell smoke inside buildings in downtown Sydney. So yes, it’s been over the city for quite a while. The big concern now, obviously, is the air quality. Health authorities are saying that they’re expecting calls to doctors and hospitals for respiratory problems to start going up. They say this is the worst air quality the city’s had in about four years.

The last time it was this bad there was a big red dust storm that blew in from the west that covered the city for about a day and half. And that was the last time the weather – or the air was this bad.

INSKEEP: Well, let’s remind people that this is happening outside the city in wilderness areas or in lightly populated areas. How did the fire start?

COHEN: Well, a lot of the fires started just because of hot weather. The temperatures last Thursday, when most of these fires broke out, were in the 90s. There were winds that were gusting as high as 70 miles an hour. And you’ve got very dry vegetation. So some of these fires just started naturally.

The downside is, some of these fires were actually arson. One of the fires north of the city was started by an 11-year-old boy who’s now been arrested for starting that fire. That one burnt through about 5,000 acres and forced the closure of the airport in New Castle, which is the next town north up the coast from Sydney.

The fires, the biggest fire that’s burning in the west, in the Blue Mountains, is thought to have been started by an explosives training exercise by the Australian army. There’s an army base out there and they’re looking into whether that was caused – that caused this fire. One of the other more destructive fires was actually caused by a downed power line.

But it’s been the hot weather and the relentless winds that have really sort of fanned these flames and made them worse.

INSKEEP: Is this normal?

COHEN: Well, yes and no. I mean Australia is prone to fires. It’s a very, very arid continent. And you may remember back in January there were fires burning in almost every state as the country had some of its hottest weather ever. But Australia usually has its peak fire season in the middle of summer, which is December and January.

What’s different now is that there’s been very little, if any, rain around Sydney and much of the state over the past few months, which in spring here is typically Australia’s rainy season. And that’s left the vegetation unusually dry for this time of year. Leading up to this, it’s actually been wetter than usual. So there’s a lot more vegetation and now it’s drying out and catching fire.

The big worry now is that it’s only October, so there are still months and months ahead of the typical fire season.

INSKEEP: Just about 10 seconds. Do people think about climate change at a time like this?

COHEN: Indeed they do. The prime minister has come under fire for being a climate change skeptic. The state government’s come under fire for making some cuts to its office that looks after climate change.

And even the U.N. has weighed in on this, saying this is an example of climate change.

INSKEEP: Thanks very much. That’s Stuart Cohen in Sydney, Australia, right here on NPR News.

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