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Storms bring relief and danger to Australian wildfires

Officials fear lightning could spark more blazes before heat, wind return

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A firefighters backs away from the flames Wednesday after lighting a controlled burn near Tomerong, Australia, in an effort to contain a larger fire nearby.
A firefighters backs away from the flames Wednesday after lighting a controlled burn near Tomerong, Australia, in an effort to contain a larger fire nearby. (Rick Rycroft/Associated Press) Photo Gallery

CANBERRA, Australia — Thunderstorms and showers brought some relief for firefighters battling deadly wildfires across Australia’s drought-parched east coast on Wednesday, but also raised concerns that lightning will spark more fires before dangerous hot and windy conditions return.

Around 2,300 firefighters in New South Wales state were making the most of relatively benign conditions by frantically consolidating containment lines around more than 110 blazes and patrolling for lightning strikes, state Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said.

“Unfortunately with lightning strikes, it’s not always the next day they pop up,” Fitzsimmons told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

“They can smolder around in trees and in root systems for a couple of days and pop up under drier, hotter conditions, so we are very mindful of that as we head into Friday,” he added.

The containment work comes as the death toll since the fires flared in September rose by one to 26. Matt Kavanagh, a 43-year-old Victoria state firefighter, was killed in a vehicle crash on Friday, officials said. Kavanagh was on the road working to extinguish unattended campfires when the crash happened, said Chris Hardman, Forest Fire Management Victoria’s chief fire officer. It took police a few days to investigate his death before they confirmed it was linked to his work on the wildfires, and therefore part of the disaster’s official death toll.

The unprecedented fire crisis in southeast Australia that has destroyed 2,000 homes and shrouded major cities in smoke has focused many Australians on how the nation adapts to climate change. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has faced fierce criticism both domestically and internationally for downplaying the need for his government to address climate change, which experts say helps supercharge the blazes.

The center-left opposition Labor Party has made political capital from the crisis by promising more ambitious policies than the ruling conservative coalition to tackle climate change. Opposition climate spokesman Mark Butler wants the government to allow a debate on climate change in Parliament when it returns in February.

“Hopefully we could fashion a bipartisan position,” Butler told ABC. The two sides last held a bipartisan position on climate change in 2007, and have remained bitterly divided ever since on issues such as making carbon polluters pay for their emissions.

Labor had pledged to reduce Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 and achieve zero emissions by 2050 if it had won last year’s elections.

The coalition government has committed to reduce emissions by 26 percent to 28 percent by 2030 and warns that Labor’s more ambitious target would wreck the economy. The government argues that Australia is responsible for only 1.3 percent of global emissions and more ambitious targets would not ease the current fire crisis, which follows Australia’s hottest and driest year on record.

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