Bushfire threat still high as Australia clean up begins

Horses graze after bushfires impacted houses and farmland near the small town of Glenreagh, some 600kms north of Sydney, on November 13, 2019. (File/AFP)
Updated 13 November 2019

Bushfire threat still high as Australia clean up begins

  • Firefighters were still battling 140 blazes across the country’s eastern seaboard
  • Tough conditions were expected to flare again in Queensland and New South Wales at the weekend as the temperature rises and winds pick up

GLENREAGH, Australia: Australians on Wednesday began sifting through the ashes of hundreds of bushfires that have ravaged the country, relieved that their worst fears were unrealized — but wary of a long and brutal summer ahead.

Firefighters were still battling 140 blazes across the country’s eastern seaboard, but a respite from “catastrophic” weather conditions meant the danger from many fires was downgraded.

The northern state of Queensland remained on high alert, with residents on the north shore of popular holiday town Noosa told to “leave immediately” as an “unpredictable” fire was burning nearby.

But in the worst-hit areas of New South Wales, cooler southerly winds eased conditions — a stark contrast with the gale-force gusts and high temperatures that plagued firefighters for much of Tuesday.

In all, 50 homes were damaged or destroyed, and around 20 people were injured, but most populated areas were spared.

Residents of the small towns of Glenreagh and Nana Glen returned to find houses intact, a nearby 150,000-hectare (370,000-acre) inferno having stopped just short of their doors.

But on nearby farmland, unlucky families faced homes destroyed and cars transformed into blackened husks.

Queensland Fire and Emergency Services acting commissioner Michael Wassing said another wind change on Wednesday afternoon could worsen several large fires in difficult-to-access areas of the state.

“We’ve got another tough day today and there’s an extended forecast that we’re not out of the woods by any means,” he said.

Tough conditions were expected to flare again in Queensland and New South Wales at the weekend as the temperature rises and winds pick up.

“We will not have all these fires contained before then,” New South Wales Rural Fire Service commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said, adding that it could be “many, many weeks” before the situation is fully under control.

“Unfortunately, what we need is rain... and there is certainly nothing in the forecast for the foreseeable future that’s going to make any discernible difference.”

More than 300 new fires began in the state Tuesday, with 19 classified as emergencies. They spanned a distance of almost 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) — from the outskirts of Sydney north toward Brisbane.

“The losses, the damage, the consequences could have been simply enormous across such a broad geographic area,” Fitzsimmons said.

New South Wales Police said they had begun investigating whether a small number of the blazes had been deliberately lit, as they made handful of arrests for suspected looting of fire-stricken properties.

The hot, dry continent of Australia has long experienced bushfires, but scientists say climate change is exacerbating extreme weather conditions, including a prolonged drought in the country’s east that has created tinderbox-like conditions.

The Bureau of Meteorology says human-caused climate change is also “influencing the frequency and severity of dangerous bushfire conditions” by increasing temperatures, sapping moisture from the environment and causing an earlier and more extreme fire season.

The unprecedented wave of bushfires have brought renewed calls for the conservative government to curb fossil fuels and cut greenhouse gas emissions.

However Prime Minister Scott Morrison and other senior ministers have repeatedly refused to answer questions about climate change during the unfolding catastrophe.


French officers detained after fury over beating video

Updated 39 min 56 sec ago

French officers detained after fury over beating video

  • Images published by the Loopsider website show how music producer Michel Zecler was repeatedly beaten by police
  • Celebrities including football World Cup winners Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann condemned the beating

PARIS: French authorities on Friday detained four officers suspected of beating and racially abusing a black music producer in Paris in a case that has shocked President Emmanuel Macron and drawn outrage from celebrities and sports stars.
Images published by the Loopsider website show how music producer Michel Zecler was repeatedly beaten by police for several minutes and subjected to racial abuse as he tried to enter his music studio Saturday evening.
Celebrities including football World Cup winners Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann condemned the beating, while French star singer Aya Nakamura said she wished the producer strength, adding “thank you to those who filmed.”
A presidential official said Friday that Macron, too, was “very shocked” by the images.
The incident raised questions over the future of Paris police chief Didier Lallement, already in the spotlight after the controversial forced removal of a migrant camp in Paris earlier in the week.
It also put the government on the backfoot as it tries to push through new security legislation that would restrict the right of the media to publish the faces of police agents.
Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin, who is in charge of the police forces, told French television that the officers tarnished the reputation of France’s security forces.
The four officers, all men, were detained for questioning on Friday, a source close to the case told AFP.
The officers, who had already been suspended from duty, were being held at the National Police Inspectorate General (IGPN), and prosecutors opened an investigation into violence by a person in authority and false testimony, the source said.
Three of the four were being questioned on suspicion of “violence with a racist motive” committed intentionally in a group, prosecutors said. The fourth is being questioned on suspicion of using violence but is not accused of racism.
Zecler was initially himself detained for causing violence, but prosecutors threw out that probe and began investigating the officers instead.
Macron on Thursday held talks with Darmanin to call for tough punishments for those involved in the beating, a government source added.
“Nausea,” said the front page headline in the leftist Liberation daily over a close-up picture of Zecler’s swollen and bloodied face.
“The new video of a rare ferocity... adds to a problem fed over the last months by a succession of blunders and a tendency to revert to authoritarian tendencies,” it said.
The death in US police custody of George Floyd in May and the Black Lives Matter movement have reverberated in France where allegations of brutality against police officers are commonplace, particularly in poor and ethnically diverse urban areas.
“French police has a structural problem with violence, violence that is committed against visible minorities,” Fabien Jobard, a sociologist, told AFP.
“Unbearable video, unacceptable violence,” Mbappe wrote on Twitter next to a picture of the injured producer. “Say no to racism.”
The outcry comes after the lower house of parliament on Tuesday evening approved a security bill which would restrict the publication of photos or videos of police officers’ faces.
Media unions say it could give police a green light to prevent journalists from potentially documenting abuses, as well as stopping social media users from posting incriminating footage.
A protest against the draft law, which has yet to pass a Senate vote, has been called for Saturday in Paris.
In a sign that the government could be preparing to backtrack, Prime Minister Jean Castex announced late Thursday that he would appoint a commission to redraft Article 24 of the law that would restrict the publication of images of the police.
But this in turn sparked accusations that the prime minister was trying to bypass the legislature.
“It is not for the government to substitute the work of an external committee in the place of parliamentary prerogatives,” the speaker of the lower house Richard Ferrand told Castex, his office said.
Macron swept to power in 2017 as a centrist who rallied support from across the political spectrum. But critics and even some supporters accuse him of tilting to the right as he seeks re-election in 2022.
“Already accused of attacking public freedoms through the security bill... the executive faces an accumulation of cases of violence and police abuse, the images of which have disturbed even the ruling party,” said Le Monde daily.