Giant fire near Sydney may burn for weeks as people struggle to breathe

The mega fire north of Sydney was created on Friday when several fires merged and was now burning across 335,000 hectares. (AP)
Updated 07 December 2019

Giant fire near Sydney may burn for weeks as people struggle to breathe

  • Thousands of weary firefighters, who have been battling bushfires for a month, were on Saturday fighting nearly 100 blazes in New South Wales state
  • A three-year drought has left much of Australia tinder dry

MELBOURNE: A giant bushfire on the edge of Sydney, which has blanketed the city in smoke causing a spike in respiratory illnesses and the cancelation of outdoor sports, will take weeks to control but will not be extinguished without heavy rains, firefighters said.
Thousands of weary firefighters, who have been battling bushfires for a month, were on Saturday fighting nearly 100 blazes in New South Wales state.
The mega fire north of Sydney, Australia’s largest city, was created on Friday when several fires merged and was now burning across 335,000 hectares.
“We need flooding rain to put these fires out. That’s really what is going to stop it,” said the New South Wales Rural Fire Service. “These will take many weeks to put out.”
Bushfires are common in Australia during the hot summer, which begins in December, but this year the fires started much earlier, blamed on soaring temperatures, dry winds and arson.
A three-year drought has left much of Australia tinder dry.
The fires around Sydney have been pumping such vast amounts of smoke into the air that they appear as significant rain on the radars, the Bureau of Meteorology said on Twitter.
New South Wales Health said late on Friday that some 1,140 people had sought medical assistance for breathing issues or asthma in the past week — a quarter more than in a typical week. NSW Ambulance fielded about a third more calls.
Six people have been killed, nearly 700 houses burnt down and millions of hectares of land razed.
Strong winds fanned flames toward several suburbs in southwest Sydney on Saturday.
“It’s been going on all day, a fire came from the back and we put it out. But then another one came from the side so the fires covered the house in foam,” said Luke Wright who helped save his brother’s home.
“The fence has been damaged but that’s about it, very lucky,” Wright told local media.
Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said the worst might still be ahead, with temperatures forecast to rise into the 40 degrees Celsius in coming days and no meaningful rainfall expected until late January.
“It’s a tough couple of months ahead yet and we’ve already seen the horrific consequences of fire so far this season,” Fitzsimmons told Australia’s 9News on Saturday.
Neighboring Queensland state was battling some 45 bushfires and temperatures on Saturday as high as 40 Celsius.


Afghan lawmakers urge unmasking, punishment of embezzlers of $19bn US aid

Updated 13 min 41 sec ago

Afghan lawmakers urge unmasking, punishment of embezzlers of $19bn US aid

  • Audit report reveals almost one-third of American funding toward Afghanistan’s reconstruction ‘lost to waste, fraud, abuse’

KABUL: Afghan legislators on Wednesday called on the US to unmask and punish those involved in the embezzlement of at least $19 billion of American aid earmarked for the war-torn country’s reconstruction.

The US Congress had approved nearly $134 billion for redevelopment programs in Afghanistan since 2002, following the American invasion that ousted the Taliban.

However, in its latest audit report released on Tuesday, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) said it had reviewed $63 billion of the amount and discovered that about $19 billion of it had been “lost to waste, fraud, and abuse.”

Some $1.8 billion had been squandered between January 2018 and December 2019 alone.

“Those behind this squandering, fraud, and corruption must be identified, should be tried and punished because they were involved in a big historical treason against our people,” Raihana Azad, a lawmaker from the central Afghan province of Dai Kundi, told Arab News.

“They have stolen the money which was earmarked for Afghanistan’s reconstruction and projects and what has happened has been a big blow for the poor people here.”

While it remains unclear if those involved in the misappropriation of funds were Afghan nationals or donors, Seddiq Ahmad Usmani, a lawmaker from northern Parwan province, said foreign aid had been handled by representatives chosen by the donors themselves.

“Foreigners have to respond as they were mostly behind such embezzlement with some (Afghan) government leaders.

“It will be very fair to see those people behind bars. We ask the American government to focus now on finding the culprits, whether Afghans or foreigners, and punish them,” he added.

Numerous complaints have been raised in Afghanistan over years about the efficiency of foreign aid and its links to corruption and SIGAR itself has routinely criticized the Afghan government’s insufficient efforts to curb graft.

In a report released earlier this year, the agency said that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s administration was “more interested in checking off boxes for the international community than in actually uprooting its corruption problem.”

Abdul Qadir Qalatwal, a parliament member from southern Zabul province, said: “It is clear that foreigners were behind this squandering because they approved the projects, funded them, and conducted the works.”

He added that the Afghan government was ready “to give accountability for any aid money that has been provided by donors for development projects.”

Another lawmaker, Keramuddin Reza Zada from central Ghor province, said that SIGAR had been operating since 2010 and had investigated a series of fraud cases, so it was high time that it exposed those behind the corruption to stop further misuse.

“It (SIGAR) has had plenty of time to reveal former culprits. Now is the time to do so too, so future embezzlement is prevented,” the lawyer added. 

Jamshid Rasooli, spokesman for Afghanistan’s attorney general, was unable to comment on SIGAR’s latest report. However, the finance ministry’s public affairs officer, Shamrooz Khan Masjidi, said the projects where the fraud took place were those “that were funded and handled by donors.”

Torek Farhadi, a former Afghan government adviser, told Arab News: “With SIGAR having been around since 2010, it shows that those who make war decisions are more interested in reaching outcomes than reading audit reports.

“This SIGAR report shows that for a superpower, there is no way to conduct a war thousands of kilometers ...  from home, without wasting its own resources.”