Smoke haze settles over Australian capital as bushfires burn

Firefighters controls a backburn near Mangrove Mountain, north of Sydney, Australia, Sunday, Dec. 8, 2019. (AP)
Updated 08 December 2019

Smoke haze settles over Australian capital as bushfires burn

  • Residents of Canberra in the country’s southeast woke up to see the capital shrouded in haze Sunday
  • The state’s Bureau of Meteorology warned that the massive fires are 'in some cases just too big to put out at the moment.'

SYDNEY: Smoke haze from bushfires raging in Australia spread to the capital Sunday, as firefighters raced to contain more than 140 blazes ahead of a heatwave forecast early this week.

Australia is experiencing a horrific start to its fire season, which scientists say began earlier and is more extreme this year due to a prolonged drought and the effects of climate change.

Residents of Canberra in the country’s southeast woke up to see the capital shrouded in haze Sunday, joining those in Sydney who have endured weeks of toxic air pollution caused by bushfire smoke.

Officials said favorable weather conditions had given them a chance to bring several blazes under control before the forecast return of strong winds and high temperatures Tuesday.

Among those is a “mega fire” burning across 250,000 hectares within an hour’s drive of Sydney, Australia’s largest city, where ash from the fires has occasionally fallen.

Firefighters are now bracing for Tuesday, when temperatures are expected to reach above 40 Celsius in parts of New South Wales state — worst-hit by the bushfires — and gusting westerly winds are likely to fan the flames.

“Today (fire) crews will be doing what they can to consolidate and strengthen containment lines, which in some areas will include backburning,” NSW Rural Fire Service spokesman Greg Allan told AFP.

But the state’s Bureau of Meteorology warned that the massive fires are “in some cases just too big to put out at the moment.”

“They’re pumping out vast amounts of smoke which is filling the air, turning the sky orange & even appearing like significant rain on our radars,” the department tweeted.

Nearly 50 reinforcements from the United States and Canada have been flown in to support fatigued firefighters in recent days, with the international contingent tasked with providing logistical assistance.

In neighboring Queensland, the focus was also on managing fatigue among frontline firefighters — who in both states are almost all volunteers — as weather there provided a brief reprieve from weeks of battling blazes.

“We’re just looking to wind down and recover and prepare for the next round, whenever that may be,” a Queensland Fire and Emergency Service spokesman told AFP.

Since the crisis began in September, six people have been killed, more than 700 homes destroyed and an estimated two million hectares (almost five million acres) scorched.

Though the human toll has been far lower than the deadliest fire season in 2009 — when almost 200 people died — the scale of this year’s devastation has been widely described as unprecedented, as Australians grapple with the impacts of a changing climate.

Official data shows 2019 is on track to be one of the hottest and driest years on record in Australia.


World’s biggest literature festival kicks off in Jaipur

Updated 24 January 2020

World’s biggest literature festival kicks off in Jaipur

  • Economist and Nobel laureate Abhijit Banerjee will attend the event

JAIPUR: The 13th edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) started on Thursday.

Known as the “greatest literary show on earth,” the five-day event brings to one venue more than 500 speakers of 15 Indian and 35 foreign languages, and over 30 nationalities.

Among the festival’s participants are Nobel laureates and Pulitzer Prize winners.

The event has been expanding, with over 400,000 people attending it last year and even more expected to show up this time.  The growing crowd has made the medieval Diggi Palace, which hosts it, look small, and organizers are planning to shift the event to a bigger venue next year.

Scottish historian and writer William Dalrymple, one of the organizers, said: “The first time we came to the Diggi Palace in 2007, 16 people turned up for the session of which 10 were Japanese tourists who walked out after 10 minutes, as they had come to the wrong place. Things have improved a little since then. We are now formally the largest literature festival in the world.”

Dalrymple, who has extensively written on medieval India and South Asia, has played a pivotal role in promoting the festival.

The other two organizers are its director, Sanjoy K. Roy, and writer Namita Gokhale, who along with Dalrymple made the JLF become one of the most sought-after events in India.

“Why has the literary festival taken off in this country in this extraordinary way? It goes back to the tradition of spoken literature, the celebration of literature orally through the spoken word has deep roots in this country,” Dalrymple said.

“So the idea that a literary festival is a foreign import is something that can’t be maintained. We’ve tapped into something very deep here. Literature is alive and is loved in India,” he said.

Inaugurating the festival’s 13th edition, celebrated British mathematician Marcus du Sautoy said: “Every number has its own particular character in the story of mathematics. For me it is 13; 13 is a prime number, an indivisible number, and the JLF is certainly a festival in its prime.”

The festival this year is taking place amid a raging debate about India’s new citizenship legislation and mass agitation on the issue of preserving the secular fabric of the nation.

Reflecting on the prevailing mood in the country, Roy, in his opening remarks, said: “We are now faced with a situation where we see a spread of the narrative of hatred. Literature is the one thing that can push back against it and so can be the arts. All of us have a responsibility to do so and this is not the time to be silent anymore.”

Gokhale said: “Ever since its inception 13 years ago, we at the Jaipur Literary Festival have tried to give a voice to our plural and multilingual culture. We live in a nation which is defined by its diversity, and it is our effort to present a range of perspectives, opinions, and points of view, which together build up a cross-section of current thinking.”

She added: “We seek mutual respect and understanding in our panels — it is important to us that these often conflicting ideas are respectfully presented and heard. We also resist predictable and self-important all-male panels, and try to ensure that the vital voices of women resonate through all aspects of our programming.”

One of the attractions of the event this year is the presence of Nobel laureate Abhijit Banerjee, who won the prize in economics last year.

There are also panel discussions on Kashmir, the Indian constitution and history.

The prevailing political situation in South Asia is also reflected by the absence of Pakistani. Before, popular Pakistani authors would attend the JLF, but delays in visa issuance and a hostile domestic environment forced the organizers to “desist from extending invitations.”