Australia is grappling with massive bushfires fuelled by record-breaking temperatures and months of severe drought. In the worst-affected state, New South Wales, fires have burned more than 3 million hectares (7.4m acres) destroying more than 800 houses. Eight people – including two volunteer firefighters whose vehicle was hit by a tree – have died.
Almost a third of koalas in Australia's New South Wales region may have been killed in deadly bushfires, which have been burning out of control, the Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley said https://t.co/lXV35WET9j
— CNN (@CNN) December 27, 2019
Nearly 100 fires are burning across the state, with many uncontained and continuing to threaten lives. The fires have been exacerbated by 40C temperatures and strong winds, creating difficult conditions for the 2,500 firefighters deployed in the field.
All six states as well as the Northern Territory reached temperatures exceeding 40C today, with Hobart recording its hottest December day.
Melbourne: Latest threat
Fire threatened three Melbourne suburbs Monday, with residents warned it was too late to flee and they must “act immediately to survive,” as a heatwave fuelled Australia’s deadly bushfire crisis.
The capital Canberra has cancelled its New Year’s Eve fireworks display due to a total fire ban in the Australia Capital Territory, while several regional towns have also followed suit
Authorities declared a bushfire emergency as an out-of-control blaze bore down on homes in Australia’s second-biggest city. In Bundoora — just 16 kilometres (10 miles) north of the city centre and home to two major Australian university campuses — fire was “threatening homes and lives”, Victoria Emergency said.
“You are in danger and need to act immediately to survive,” the agency said in a message to residents. “The safest option is to take shelter indoors immediately. It is too late to leave.”
Local media showed images of water bombers flying over the neighbourhoods and families dousing their homes with water hoses in the hope of halting the fire’s spread. It is the latest emergency in Australia’s devastating summer fire season, which has been turbocharged by a prolonged drought and climate change.
Ten people have been killed, more than 1,000 homes destroyed and more than three million hectares (7.4 million acres) — an area bigger than Belgium — have been scorched.
Conditions worsened on Friday with high winds and temperatures soaring across the country — reaching 47 degrees Celsius (117 Fahrenheit) in Western Australia and topping 40 degrees in every region — including the usually temperate island of Tasmania.
More than a dozen blazes are also raging in the East Gippsland countryside, where authorities said “quite a number” of the 30,000 tourists visiting the usually picturesque region had heeded calls to evacuate.
Today I visited the Picton community in NSW to offer my support to some of the families who’ve lost everything in these terrible bushfires.
It’s days like these when you see the best of Australia – friendship, neighbours looking after each other, simple kindnesses being extended. pic.twitter.com/4rngBvHmOw
— Scott Morrison (@ScottMorrisonMP) December 22, 2019
Some of the fires were burning so intensely that hundreds of firefighters were pulled back beyond a firefront estimated to stretch 1,000 kilometres (600 miles). It was deemed “unsafe” for them to remain in bushland areas, Gippsland fire incident controller Ben Rankin said, describing the situation as “very intense.”
Too late to leave
Authorities had warned tourists enjoying Australia’s summer holidays in East Gippsland that the fires would cut off the last major road still open.
Victoria Emergency Management commissioner Andrew Crisp said residents and holiday makers still in the area faced being stranded as it was now “too late to leave”, with his agency warning it was “not possible” to provide aid to all visitors in the area.
Fire threatened three Melbourne suburbs Monday, with residents warned it was too late to flee and they must “act immediately to survive,” as a heatwave fuelled Australia’s deadly bushfire crisis
Neighbouring South Australia is also experiencing “catastrophic” fire conditions.
The Country Fire Service’s Brenton Eden said it would be a “very dangerous” day for people in the state, with “dry” thunderstorms — which produce thunder and lightning but no rain — already sparking a number of fires including an emergency-level blaze on Kangaroo Island.
“Winds are gusting and unfortunately this is a dry lightning front that is going to move rapidly across South Australia,” he told national broadcaster ABC. Conditions were also expected to deteriorate in worst-hit New South Wales, where 100 fires were burning Monday morning including more than 40 uncontained.
Everyone in East Gippsland must leave the area today due to the fire danger forecast for tomorrow. Do not travel to this area. It is not possible to provide support and aid to all the visitors currently in the East Gippsland region.
— cfa_updates (@CFA_Updates) December 29, 2019
Sydney and other major cities have been shrouded in toxic bushfire smoke haze for weeks, forcing children to play indoors and causing professional sporting events to be cancelled.
The capital Canberra has cancelled its New Year’s Eve fireworks display due to a total fire ban in the Australia Capital Territory, while several regional towns have also followed suit.
A petition to cancel Sydney’s famous New Year’s Eve fireworks and use the money to fight bushfires ringing the city has topped 270,000 signatures, but officials say the show will go on.
Sydney has spent Aus$6.5 million ($4.5 million) on this year’s fireworks display — funds that the Change.org petition argues would be better spent on supporting volunteer firefighters and farmers suffering through a brutal drought.
Does the government care?
The Australian government and Prime Minister Scott Morrison have come under fire for not responding accordingly to the emergency. Critics and protestors have questioned his environmentally unfriendly policies, downplaying the emergency, not providing enough resources and support to firefighters, and taking a vacation to Hawaii as the country burns.
A mural mocking Prime Minister Scott Morrison's ill-timed Hawaiian getaway has helped raise $50,000 for the Rural Fire Service, according to its creator Scott Marsh. https://t.co/fnvSTtOcNJ
— SBS News (@SBSNews) December 30, 2019
Scott Morrison has argued there is no direct link between Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions and the severity of fires ravaging the continent, even suggesting Australia could increase its emissions without making the current fire season worse.
Under pressure due to a record season of early bushfires and the accusation by a coalition of former fire chiefs that the government has avoided the issue of climate change, Morrison said on Thursday there was no “credible scientific evidence” that cutting Australia’s emissions could reduce the severity of bushfires.
On Thursday Morrison defended the government’s handling of the bushfire season, telling ABC’s AM it had put additional resources into emergency services and praising the “outstanding” response and coordination of state governments.
GVS News Desk with additions from news agencies