Deluge in Australia drenches fires and eases three-year drought

Nick Perry

WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND (AP) — Drought, wildfires and now flooding have given Australia a difficult year. The good news is that a recent deluge in eastern parts of the country has drenched deadly fires and helped ease a crippling drought.

Economics professor and water expert at Australian National University in Canberra Quentin Grafton said the rain had broken the drought in some towns but had not fallen evenly across all the affected areas.

“At this stage, it’s very good news, and certainly much more than people could have wished for or expected,” he said of the rainfall. “There are some very happy people.”

Grafton said drought had badly affected an area of over 1.5 million square kilometres, which is larger than the country of Ethiopia. He said monitoring on major rivers over the coming days should provide a clearer picture of how much the rain has helped.

Fire authorities had a reason to celebrate, with many wildfires being extinguished or significantly dampened down by the rain. Last Saturday, authorities declared the Currowan Fire south of Sydney was finally out after destroying over 300 homes and razing 500,000 hectares over two-and-a-half months.

Sea foam brought by waves approaches on beach front houses after heavy rain and storms at Collaroy in Sydney’s Northern Beaches. PHOTO: AP

“This is the most positive news we’ve had in some time,” the New South Wales Rural Fire Service tweeted yesterday. “The recent rainfall has assisted firefighters to put over 30 fires out since last Friday. Some of these blazes have been burning for weeks and even months.”

In all, Australia’s wildfires killed at least 33 people and destroyed over 3,000 homes.

The fires began causing widespread destruction toward the end of 2019, which was both the hottest and driest year in Australia’s recorded history, according to the Bureau of Meteorology.

During the deluge over recent days, coastal areas have experienced some of the heaviest rainfalls, which has caused flash flooding in some places. Sydney, the central coast and the Blue Mountains received up to 400 millimetres since last Friday, representing some of the heaviest falls in decades.

Dams in the greater Sydney area were over 64 per cent full yesterday after being only 42 per cent full a week earlier, according to officials. More rain is forecast over the coming days.

But not everybody was ready to begin celebrating. Owner of the Burke & Wills Menindee Motel in the Outback town of Menindee Darryl Cowie said they’d received only a small amount of rain overnight.

“The ground was damp, but it’s drying out again now,” he said. “It’s not enough to do anything.”

Cowie said he has been serving guests bottled water for about a year now, ever since the tap water became discoloured and salty tasting due to the drought. He said the town has since switched to bore water, which has improved the quality.

“There are clouds that have come past, but by the time they reach us, they’re empty,” he said. “We’re keeping our fingers crossed. Sydney is copping it, but it’s a long way from here.”