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At least 4 dead in Australian wildfires as conditions worsen

Australian officials on Wednesday ordered residents and tourists to get out of the way of fast-approaching flames as firefighters struggled to contain more than 150 fires raging on both the east and west coasts.

Ferocity and early arrival of this year's bush fire outbreak have caught many by surprise

Firefighters battle a fire in Hillville, Australia, on Wednesday. (Sam Mooy/Getty Images)

Australian officials on Wednesday ordered residents and tourists to get out of the way of fast-approaching flames as firefighters struggled to contain more than 150 fires raging on both the east and west coasts.

At least four people were confirmed dead in New South Wales and officials warned conditions were worsening. 

About 60 fires were burning around the state on Thursday morning, with 27 uncontained. More than 1,000 firefighters are fighting the flames, the Rural Fire Service said.

"We had a better day yesterday, only one fire got to emergency warning, but even in these pretty benign conditions we're seeing quite a lot of aggressive fire behaviour simply because it's so dry," Rural Fire Service Deputy Commissioner Rob Rogers told the Seven Network television.

Across the state's northern neighbour, Queensland, more than 80 fires threatened lives and homes.

Authorities issued a "leave immediately" warning, the highest level, for several areas including Noosa, a beachside holiday destination 150 km north of Brisbane, the state capital of Queensland.

"We're expecting people to listen to the warnings and work on their bush fire survival plans and, if in doubt, now is the time to leave," said Greg Christensen, mayor for the Scenic Rim regional council in Queensland.

Danny Wearne surveys damage to his property on Wednesday in Rainbow Flat, Australia. (Sam Mooy/Getty Images)

"This is a very challenging season," Christensen told reporters. "You haven't had bush fires like these bush fires before."

A private water-bombing helicopter crashed while battling a fire west of Brisbane, though the pilot escaped with minor injuries, Queensland Fire & Emergency Services said.

Acrimonious debate

Across the country, in Western Australia, officials were responding to two emergency wildfires that had destroyed two homes and damaged another.

The fires have sparked increasingly acrimonious debate over climate and fire-prevention policies, with the ruling conservative Liberal Party and the minor opposition Australian Greens exchanging barbs.

WATCH: Seasonal fires rage in New South Wales

Seasonal fires in Australia have already claimed three lives and destroyed 2.5 million acres of farmland and bush. 0:30

Former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce was among those who have suggested that climate activists were at least partly responsible for the fires by lobbying to reduce so-called back burns, fires deliberately lit to clear dry undergrowth.

Independent lawmaker Zali Steggall said it was very "unbecoming of our Parliament" for Joyce to make such remarks.

'Woke capital city greenies'

"We do need to adapt and plan for these situations," she told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. "What we want is a consensus moving forward on how to come up with a plan that adapts Australia to a warming climate."

Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack, meanwhile, said linking the fires to the government's support of the coal industry was "the ravings of some pure, enlightened and woke capital city greenies."

Residents defend a property at Hillsville near Taree, Australia, on Tuesday. (Peter Parks/AFP via Getty Images)

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who has declined to comment on climate change during the crisis, has called for moderation in the debate.

Fires are common in the bush during Australia's hot, dry summers, but the ferocity and early arrival of the fires in the southern spring this year has caught many by surprise.

3 years of drought

The fires have destroyed about a million hectares of farmland and bush, fuelled by extremely dry conditions after three years of drought, which experts say has been exacerbated by climate change.

Some 300 homes have been destroyed in NSW alone in recent days as flames stretched from the state's north coast to within metres of homes in Greater Sydney.

A satellite view of the fires.

By Wednesday afternoon, insured losses from 450 fire-related claims in NSW and Queensland was estimated at about $45 million Cdn, according to the Insurance Council of Australia.

There is unlikely to be a near-term respite from hot and dry conditions.

"We will not have all these fires contained and locked up for many, many weeks," NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons told reporters in Sydney.

"Unfortunately, what we need is rain."

With files from The Associated Press

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