By Erin Cooper
SYDNEY (Reuters) – A helicopter pilot died on Friday when his aircraft crashed while waterbombing rare winter bushfires in Australia that have swept across its drought-stricken southeast, police said.
About 75 fires are burning across New South Wales state, fanned by dry conditions that prompted authorities to declare a drought across the state last week.
The pilot was found dead at the scene after his helicopter crashed near Ulladulla, about 180 km (111 miles) south of Sydney, at around 2 p.m. (0400 GMT), police said, but did not identify him.
“The pilot put his life on the line to protect and keep our community safe and he has paid the ultimate price,” regional politician Shelley Hancock told the Milton-Ulladulla Times.
Fire authorities say the unseasonal blazes, regular in summer but rare in winter, have flared because of dry conditions that have blighted vast tracts of grazing and crop land.
Hundreds of firefighters and dozens of aircraft are battling the fires that have so far destroyed at least two houses, both near Bega, a town 100 miles south from Ulladulla.
Last month was Australia’s fifth-driest July on record, in New South Wales’ driest January-to-July period since 1965.
The weather bureau has forecast warm, dry conditions to continue until November.
(Reporting by Erin Cooper; Editing by Darren Schuettler and Clarence Fernandez)