THE FIRES OF CHRISTMAS
Eyes looked skyward for rain, but the only clouds were of smoke. Heat and wind around Sydney last week dried a path for more than 150 fires to blaze in the worst natural disaster to hit the country in the 200 years since British settlers arrived.
By week’s end more than 400,000 hectares were alight. At least four people had died; scores of homes had been destroyed and thousands of people had been evacuated. With highways and rail lines closed to the north, access to Australia’s largest city was limited. The shells of the Sydney Opera House, the city’s landmark, are normally a 1 bright and shiny white in the sunshine, but last week they were a dull orange. The first fires began in the northern part of the state of New South Wales a few days after Christmas. By early last week there was a quilt of 40 blazes. By Wednesday there were 80, Thursday 90, Friday 150.
A quarter of the state was under threat, from the Queensland border to the New South Wales southern coast. Sydney Was bracketed by fires to the north, south and west. Hundreds of people made dramatic escapes, taken off threatened shores by surf-boats or lifted by helicopters as flames neared remote camping spots. An old woman, carried from her home, clutched a framed picture to her heart. In places like Newcastle and Lake Macquarie, skies were black and the Sun orange. “It’s like being on another planet,” said Jill Allen, who works near Lake Macquarie.
“It looks.like a storm coming. We wish it was.” Beaches were covered with ash and charred leaves. In Pittwater, a picturesque inlet just north of Sydney, a flotilla of yachts, dinghies and ferries evacuated several hundred people from the densely wooded shores. 3Compounding the tragedy was the fact that nature’s persistence had been abetted.
Authorities said perhaps half the blazes were the work of arsonists. A $100,000 reward was offered after news that some fires had been deliberately lit. Police soon received an estimated 850 phone calls from people claiming to have seen arsonists. Authorities have arrested 11 people, including at least two teenagers.
A 13-year-old boy is to appear in the Children’s Court in Sydney in connection with one blaze. There was public outrage that a Sydney hotel had threatened to dismiss an employee who is a volunteer fire fighter unless he returned to work. The disaster, however, also brought out the best in some people. Residents risked their own homes to help save those of their neighbours; general stores opened their shelves to people battling blazes.
At the front line, the thousands of fire fighters were tenacious, but the battle was unequal, even with the help of troops and fire fighters brought in from other states. Because of the fires’ spread and ferocity, authorities could only hope to protect lives and minimize property damage. Beyond that, other allies were needed. In one meeting, John Fahey, the premier of New South Wales, called for help from “the weather and
God above to fight the intense fires.” Neither seemed to be cooperating. Meteorologists said no rain was likely for the next few days.
A. What do the following refer to?
1. ‘they’ (line 10):
2. ‘those’ (line 40):
B. Find words in the text which mean the same as the following.
1. sent or carried to a place of safety (paragraph 1):
2. held tightly in the hand (paragraph 3):
3. a group, used especially to refer to a group of small ships (paragraph 3):
4. people who set fire to a place on purpose (paragraph 4):
5. a very strong feeling of anger and shock (paragraph 4):
6. being determined, not giving up easily (paragraph 5):
7. the quality of being violent, or aggressive and intense (paragraph 5):