The Australian military said yesterday it was investigating whether a major bushfire was linked to an explosives training exercise, as firefighters battled blazes that have destroyed or damaged 300 homes.
The Rural Fire Service said about 80 fires were burning across New South Wales state, with about 20 of them uncontained despite yesterday’s cooler weather conditions.
Among the major fires was one burning between the towns of Lithgow and Bilpin, about 80km northwest of Sydney, which intensified after burning through 30,000 hectares and reportedly destroying some properties.
“This fire is by no means contained,” New South Wales Rural Fire Service Deputy Commissioner Rob Rogers said.
“It’s got absolutely kilometers and kilometers of fire front,” he added.
The Australian Defense Force said it was investigating the circumstances of the fire near Lithgow, which began on defense land.
“The fire started on 16 October, the same day that Defense personnel were conducting an explosive ordnance training activity,” it said in a statement. “Defense is investigating if the two events are linked.”
“Our thoughts are with those who have lost property or whose property is threatened by these devastating fires,” it added.
Firefighters are battling bushfires across New South Wales, which could take weeks to fully overcome, particularly with more hot and gusty weather forecast for as soon as today.
One man has already died while trying to protect his home on the Central Coast north of Sydney, possibly succumbing to a heart attack, but authorities are hopeful no other people are unaccounted for in the blazes.
The fires took hold in warm and windy conditions on Thursday and the worst affected areas have been in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, where about 193 properties were destroyed and 109 damaged in the towns of Springwood and Winmalee.
Crews were called to protect homes in the Lithgow region later yesterday, and also stepped up efforts in Springwood as that blaze continued to threaten more homes with a small local hospital evacuated as a precaution.
Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said some of the fires were so big they would take more time to completely extinguish.
“Firefighters will be working on these fires for weeks,” he said. “It’s all about reducing the risk of these fires to breach containment lines and run under hotter, drier, windier conditions over coming days.”
In the meantime, residents were returning to the remains of their homes, searching through the rubble for valuables and keepsakes.
In Lithgow, the scenic tourist attraction the Zig Zag Railway has been hard hit, with trains, carriages and equipment destroyed.
The railway, which runs on the original track built in the 1860s, was soon to be reopened to the public after being closed last year for upgrades.