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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

Strong winds fan fires and disrupt flights in Australia

South-east experiencing unsettled weather that blanketed Sydney in a dust storm

A firefighter sprays water on a bushfire in a suburb of Newcastle in Australia on November 23, 2018. AAP via Reuters
A firefighter sprays water on a bushfire in a suburb of Newcastle in Australia on November 23, 2018. AAP via Reuters

Strong winds across Australia's south-east coast caused commuter chaos at Sydney and Melbourne airports, the country's two busiest, with thousands of air travellers stranded after dozens of flights were cancelled on Friday.

Winds gusting up to 70 kph also fanned major bushfires along the east coast, threatening homes and forcing evacuations.

Sydney airport cancelled 76 flights after all but one runway was closed due to the strong winds.

"It’s not safe to have flights landing or departing and as a result we are going to a single runway, there are delays," airport officials said.

Melbourne airport also reduced the number of flights allowed to arrive and depart each hour as a result of the cancellations at Sydney airport.

The strong winds fanned fires across New South Wales state, with Australia's Rural Fire Service reporting 21 fires.

A Boeing 737 modified for use as a waterbomber was used to fight bushfires around the city of Newcastle, north of Sydney, the fire service said. The aircraft can carry 15,000 litres of water or fire retardant.

"(This) was the first operational drop that its done in the world...it has proven to be effective," said Chris Garlick, a spokesman for the NSW Rural Fire Services.

Fires around the popular tourist spot of Port Stephens, nearly 200km north of Sydney, forced an emergency evacuation of residents. There were no reports of injuries or loss of property. Emergency workers warned that strong winds threatened to escalate the fires.

The strong winds are part of a massive weather system over south-east Australia that whipped up a 500km dust storm on Thursday, which swept across the drought-parched interior to blanket Sydney.

The Australian Bureau of Meteorology said winds would ease by Friday evening, offering some respite to travellers and fire fighters.