Rain offers Australian bushfire hope, but smoke hits tennis stars

SYDNEY (AFP) – Hopes of containing Australia’s months-long bushfire crisis rose yesterday with heavy rain forecast, but toxic smoke in Melbourne disrupted warm-up events for the year’s first tennis Grand Slam.

Cool weather over recent days had already given some respite for exhausted firefighters spread out across vast swathes of the country, allowing some of the biggest blazes to be brought under control.

Optimism was further boosted yesterday with heavy rain forecast for some of the hotspots in the most populated eastern states of New South Wales and Victoria.

“It’s some pretty good news,” New South Wales Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said.

“We’ve been talking about it for months now, that January might see the first fall of decent rain, and that looks like what’s coming along over the next few days.”

Aerial photo shows burnt bushes near Port Macquarie, New South Wales, Australia. PHOTO: XINHUA

The rain is set to begin across eastern Australia today and last through the weekend, according to government meteorologist Sarah Scully. “Hopefully some of this heavy rainfall will fall over some of the fire sites and help control or even extinguish some of those fires,” Scully said.

However dozens of fires remained out of control and, with many weeks of hot weather still expected throughout the rest of Australia’s summer, there was no suggestion the crisis would completely end soon.

Toxic smoke from the blazes also blew overnight into the Victorian capital of Melbourne, which is due to stage the Australian Open tennis tournament beginning next week.

Pollution in Melbourne, which is normally ranked as among the world’s most liveable cities, was rated “hazardous”, and health authorities warned people to stay indoors.

World number one Rafael Nadal and other stars abandoned outdoor practice sessions and hit indoors.

But Australian Open qualifying rounds went ahead after a two-hour delay in the morning, causing anger and confusion for some players who said matches should have been cancelled for the day.

Slovenian Dalila Jakupovic, ranked 201 in the world, had to retire from her match after suffering a coughing fit, and she later blamed the smoke.

“I was really scared that I would collapse… it’s not healthy for us,” she told reporters.

“I was surprised, I thought we would not be playing today but we don’t have much choice.” Mandy Minella, the world number 140 from Luxembourg, also voiced her opposition on Twitter.

“Shocked to see that qualifying matches have started @AustralianOpen. What about the health of all the people that have to work out there, especially the ballkids?” she tweeted.