Australians warned worst bushfires may be yet to come

Old Bar (Australia) (AFP) –


Firefighters in eastern Australia were on Sunday assessing damage from ferocious bushfires that have devastated communities and rushing to prepare for "bad, if not worse" conditions expected to flare in the coming days.

Catastrophic fires have killed three people and razed more than 150 homes since Friday, but cooler weather overnight provided a measure of reprieve for firefighters and residents.

More than 100 fires were still burning across New South Wales and Queensland on Sunday, including dozens of blazes that remained out of control.

Five people reported missing have now been found, but the unpredictable nature of the disaster means officials have not ruled out the possibility that others could still be missing, NSW Rural Fire Service spokesman Greg Allan told AFP.

The mayor of the small town of Glen Innes, where two people died, said residents had been left traumatised and were still coming to terms with their losses.

"The fire was as high as 20 foot (six metres) and raging with 80 kilometre-an-hour (50 mile-an-hour) winds," Carol Sparks told national broadcaster ABC.

"It was absolutely horrific for the people that were impacted (by) it."

In Old Bar, which was spared the worst when the wind changed direction, hectares of bushland had turned charcoal and small pockets of flames continued to smoulder.

Peter McKellar, 75, was clearing debris from his property as his neighbour's home sat in ruins.

"The firies (firefighters) saved ours," he told AFP. "They are doing a wonderful job. They're angels."

High temperatures, low humidity and strong winds forecast from the middle of the week are predicted to fuel blazes that authorities have warned they will be unable to contain ahead of time.

"Under these conditions, these fires will spread quickly and will threaten homes and lives," the NSW Rural Fire Service said in a statement.

"These conditions will be as bad, if not worse, than those experienced on Friday as they will be across a much broader area including large population centres like Sydney."

- 'Primed to burn' -

In Queensland, more than 1,200 firefighters were battling 51 active fires across the state on Sunday, with 39 aircraft deployed to assist for the first time ever in the state.

"Queensland does not usually have a fire season like we've experienced this year and last year," Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk told reporters.

With thousands of people forced to flee from their homes, Australia's government was offering immediate emergency assistance payments of up to Aus$1,000 ($685) to those affected.

Bushfires are common in Australia but the country has experienced a dramatic start to what scientists predict will be a tough fire season -- with climate change and weather cycles contributing to the dangerous combination of strong winds, high temperatures and dry conditions.

The current disaster has not wreaked the human devastation of Australia's worst recent bushfires, the Black Saturday fires that killed 173 people in Victoria state in 2009, with some experts attributing that to better early warning systems.

"Sadly, given the weather forecast for the coming week, the crisis may worsen and extend southward into landscapes primed to burn via extreme dryness," he said.