Australia’s navy rushed to rescue thousands of holiday-makers from a wildfire-ravaged coastal community while many more struggled to escape endangered towns by road before extreme weather triggers fresh infernos in the nation’s southeast.
Eight people have been killed in the bushfires that have swept through New South Wales and the neighboring state of Victoria this week, destroying hundreds of properties in rural towns crammed with tourists during the peak summer holiday season.
Driven by strong winds and searing temperatures on New Year’s Eve, the blazes turned the sky blood red and rained down embers, forcing people to shelter on beaches or flee by fishing boats. Roads are only now re-opening, and authorities are urging people to evacuate before the extreme weather returns on Saturday.
“We cannot overstate the potential risk of more damage and more destruction,” New South Wales Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said Thursday. “There is a big effort between today and tomorrow to get as many people out of the south coast as we can.”
A naval vessel is anchored off the isolated township of Mallacoota in Victoria and evacuations of the 4,000 people there should start Friday. Satellite phones have been dropped into some of the other 20-plus communities that remain cut-off and have been without communications or power.
Long lines of cars clogged the main highway out of Batemans Bay in New South Wales as people tried to drive to safety. There were reports of fuel and food shortages, causing lengthy queues at supermarkets and gasoline stations. The evacuation effort was further hampered by roads intermittently being closed again as firefighters continued to battle about 150 fires still burning in the two states.
The scale of the crisis, played out in real-time on social media as people posted footage and images of raging fire-fronts bearing down on communities, has shocked Australia and stoked an emotive debate about the impact of global warming in the world’s driest-inhabited continent.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government is coming under sustained criticism from environmentalists and the opposition after repeatedly downplaying links to climate change, and for not taking stronger steps to curb emissions. In a press conference Thursday, Morrison again stressed that Australia was meeting its emissions-reduction targets, and appealed for calm.
“I understand the anxiety and I understand the fear that is there for many and I understand the frustration,” he said. “But this is a natural disaster. Natural disasters are best dealt with through the methodical, well-coordinated response that we are seeing today.”
The emergency has placed scrutiny on Australia’s capacity to combat blazes that have spread over massive areas, pushing fire services largely manned by volunteers to their limits. Almost 4 million hectares of forest and bushland—an area almost twice the size of Wales—have been destroyed in New South Wales alone.
New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian on Thursday declared a week-long emergency to start on Friday.
“We don’t take these decisions lightly but we also want to make sure we’re taking every single precaution to be prepared for what could be a horrible day on Saturday,” she told reporters in Sydney, adding forecasters expected temperatures in some parts of the state that day to exceed 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit). “We also know that there are a lot of tourists on the move.”
While New South Wales and Victoria have been the hardest hit, fires are burning in all six Australian states.
At least 18 people have died since fires broke out months ago during the southern hemisphere winter, an unusually early start to the season amid a widespread, prolonged drought gripping much of the nation. With 17 people unaccounted for in Victoria, authorities fear the death toll will rise.
Fires are so intense they are generating their own weather systems, with dry thunderstorms sparking new blazes. They have already pumped out more than half of the country’s annual carbon dioxide emissions, and smoke has drifted some 2,000 kilometers to New Zealand, turning the sky orange early Wednesday in the South Island city of Dunedin.
Sydney has been frequently choked by toxic smoke in recent weeks. Residents of the Australian capital, Canberra, woke to a new year with air quality more than 23 times the level deemed hazardous. Australia Post said Thursday it was suspending deliveries in the Australian Capital Territory due to the smoke.
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