A huge bushfire raging for over a week in central Australia has come dangerously close to the popular tourist town of Tennant Creek, as authorities warn that changing wind conditions could pose a risk to residents.
Acting Northern Territory Chief Minister Nicole Manison declared an emergency situation for the entire Barkly local government area on Tuesday, and on Wednesday parts of the region, including Tennant Creek, were put under a “watch and act” alert.
A “watch and act” alert indicates a “heightened” threat level where conditions are changing and residents should start taking action to protect themselves and their families, according to the territory government.
Home to about 3,000 people, Tennant Creek is a popular place for travelers to stop and rest as they drive through the outback along the Stuart Highway between Alice Springs and Darwin.
Authorities had warned Wednesday would be “the most critical” day for the town amid forecasts of changing wind conditions, including a shift in direction and speed.
By late Wednesday, the fire had breached containment lines to the north and south of the town, according to Chief Fire Controller Tony Fuller, who told national broadcaster the Australian Broadcasting Corporation the fire was “30 or 40 kilometers away from Tennant Creek itself.”
Fires in the Barkly region of the Northern Territory were first reported on September 4 and have since spread to more than 2 million hectares (20,000 square kilometers).
Thick black smoked has hung over the region for days, generated by the fire and attempts by authorities to form containment lines.
“Back-burning operations will cause increased smoke within the Tennant Creek Township. Winds are likely to ease again at around 1700 hours,” Manison wrote in a Facebook update on Wednesday.
Back burning is a fire suppression strategy in which a fire is lit close to the edge of an active bushfire to burn out its fuel and halt its spread.
Extra crews from South Australia arrived in Tennant Creek Wednesday afternoon, Fuller told ABC.
According to James Gray-Spence, acting commander for Northern Territory Police, Fire and Emergency Services, members of the Australian Defence Force were also on site earlier Wednesday “cutting though known tracks” to slow the fire’s spread.
Gray-Spence told ABC radio Alice Springs Wednesday morning he felt they “absolutely” had the situation in hand but the ultimate impact of the fire would depend on the weather.
“I think the important message here is again, we do have high confidence in the strategy,” Gray-Spence said. “We just have to wait and see what the weather does.”
The situation comes just weeks after the Australasian Fire Authorities Council, the national council for fire and emergency services in Australia and New Zealand, predicted an increased risk of bushfires across Australia, and especially for areas in the Northern Territory, due in large part to climate change.
“We’ve had large [fires] in the past, but this is the largest one I’ve had to deal with,” Fuller told ABC Sunday, when the blaze covered more than 9,300 square kilometers.
Earlier this week, the Bureau of Meteorology forecast extreme fire danger for several areas within the Northern Territory.
The state is experiencing a dry period, with temperatures in August above average combined with rainfall 94% below the 1961-1990 average, according to the Bureau of Meteorology.