Waterbombing plane missing as Australia bushfires flare

Photo: AFP

A water-bombing plane was missing and feared to have crashed in Australia's southeast on Thursday, as firefighters battled a new outbreak of bushfires whipped up by scorching temperatures and strong winds.

At least seven blazes were declared emergencies, including one in the Snowy Monaro region, where authorities lost contact with the firefighting aircraft.

"Local ground crews indicate the aircraft may have crashed," the New South Wales Rural Fire Service said in a statement.

"A number of helicopters are in the area carrying out a search."

Bushfires also forced the closure of Canberra Airport, with all flights in and out of the country's capital suspended due to approaching flames.

Passenger flights were halted around midday (0100 GMT) as two out-of-control blazes burning immediately to the south and west of the airport merged and the combined fire bore down on three nearby suburbs.

Temperatures soared to 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) in Sydney, where a bushfire also broke out in a northwestern suburb of Australia's biggest city.

Wind gusts had been forecast to reach 90 kilometres per hour (55 miles per hour) in some areas, but New South Wales Rural Fire Service commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said the winds were stronger than expected, especially in the fire-ravaged southeast of the state.

"One of the big challenges we've got with the increased intensity of these winds is that it is proving very difficult to fly any aircraft to provide any aerial support to the firefighting effort on the ground," he said.

"We are trying to get some of the large air tankers and some of the very large helicopters involved, but it's proving very difficult. It's too dangerous to fly these things."

Fitzsimmons warned of a "long, difficult afternoon" ahead for firefighters and residents.

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