World

Rain to offer bush fire relief, but haze halts Aussie Open warm-ups

SYDNEY: 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 event.

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

Optimism was boosted yesterday with heavy rain forecast for some of the hot spots 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. That looks like what's coming along over the next few days."

The rain was 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," Ms Scully said.

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

Pollution in Melbourne, 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.

ANGER

Australian Open qualifying rounds went ahead after a two-hour delay in the morning, causing anger and confusion for 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 I would collapse..." she told reporters.

An exhibition match involving former world number one Maria Sharapova was called off.

The hazy conditions were not expected to last all week in Melbourne, with a change in wind direction and the forecast wet weather set to clear the city's air by tonight. - AFP

WORLD