Forecast storms bring both relief and new risks for fire-stricken Australia
By Lidia Kelly
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Severe storms are expected to bring some relief in the coming days from huge bushfires scorching Australia but the heavy downpours could also carry the risk of landslides and water pollution, officials said on Wednesday.
Australia is battling its worst bushfire season on record, with fires burning since September killing 29 people, destroying more than 2,500 homes and razing bushland across an area the size of Bulgaria.
The shift to more humid and wet weather later on Wednesday will likely help control some of the 114 blazes burning across New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria states and potentially even extinguish some, but also bring new dangers.
"This is a day that we are quite concerned about," Kevin Parkyn, a senior meteorologist with the Bureau of Meteorology, told reporters as he detailed a forecast of damaging winds, heavy rainfall and large hailstones for the city of Melbourne and its surrounds.
"Thunderstorms are a bit of a double-edged sword. While they can bring some much-needed rain, [the rain] can also come down in very fast, high quantities," Parkyn said.
Heavy downpours can pollute fresh water supplies as debris is swept into reservoirs. They can also cause flash flooding, leaving burnt-out areas of bushland particularly vulnerable to landslips and tree felling.
Melbourne, the capital of Victoria state, bore the brunt on Wednesday of smoke haze that satellites operated by U.S. space agency NASA scientists have tracked circumnavigating the globe.
Flights were cancelled as the heavy smoke pall shut down a runway at the city's airport and the start of qualifying matches for the Australian Open tournament, tennis' first Grand Slam of the year, was delayed for the second day in a row.
Bushfires are common during Australia's summer months, but this fire season started unusually early, often moving quickly and unpredictably, and leaving swathes of the drought-stricken land a scorched earth.
Following are some highlights of what is happening in the bushfire crisis:
* Victoria's Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp confirmed that a November death of a forest fire management contractor was related to bushfires, raising the state's death toll to five and the nationwide toll to 29.
* There were 98 fires burning in New South Wales and 16 fires burning in Victoria on Wednesday, officials said. Thirty-five of the NSW fires were uncontained.
* Ambulance Victoria reported a significant increase in daily calls from people with breathing problems this week.
* Melbourne was ranked No.12 on AirVisual's pollution ranking for major global cities by midafternoon local time.
* Globally rising temperatures may make Australia so hot and dry that the country could join the ranks of 'climate refuges' a U.S. climatologist and geophysicist told Reuters.
* Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who has faced widespread criticism for poor leadership during the bushfire crisis and his dismissive attitude towards climate change, said adaptation to the country's environmental situation is key.
* James Murdoch, one of Rupert Murdoch's sons, issued a statement criticising the conservative approach to the climate change coverage at the family's News Corporation and Fox media operations, suggesting a family rift on the issue.
* Australia's biggest insurers including Suncorp and Insurance Australia Group have put a suspension on selling insurance policies in fire-affected areas as part of an industry practice to prevent panic-buying of insurance policies.
* The NSW Rural Fire Services posted a rare light-hearted tweet ahead of the forecast wet weather. Photographs of a vehicle windscreen wiper stick and an umbrella were accompanied by the note: "We wanted to reintroduce you to a couple of items that you may not have used in some time. With more than 100 fires still burning across #NSW we are hoping we need to use both of these over the coming days."
(GRAPHIC-Swirling smoke link: https://tmsnrt.rs/2FE3KTe).
(Graphic: Sizing up Australia's bushfires link: https://tmsnrt.rs/2tE7FwD)
(Reporting by Lidia Kelly; Additional reporting by Swati Pandey, Editing by Jane Wardell)