Southeast Australia facing 'dangerous and dynamic' fire conditions
'We can't guarantee your safety,' Victoria premier says as people are urged to flee
Residents in the path of wildfires razing southeast Australia were urged to leave on Thursday if they don't intend to defend their homes as hot and windy conditions are forecast to escalate the danger over the next two days.
The Rural Fire Service in New South Wales (NSW) state has told fire-weary community meetings south of Sydney in the coastal towns of Nowra, Narooma and Batemans Bay that northwesterly winds were likely to once again drive blazes toward the coast. Vacationers have retreated to beaches and into the ocean in the area in recent weeks as destructive fires and choking smoke have encroached on the tourist towns, scorching sand dunes in some places.
In neighbouring Victoria state, fire-threatened populations were urged to act quickly on evacuation warnings.
"We can't guarantee your safety and we don't want to be putting emergency services — whether it be volunteers or paid staff — we do not want to put them in harm's way because people didn't follow advice that was given," Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews said.
Temperatures in the threatened area were expected to reach into the mid-40s Celsius on Friday, and conditions remained tinder dry.
"If you can get out, you should get out," said Andrew Crisp, Victoria's emergency management commissioner. "Because tomorrow is going to be a dangerous and dynamic day."
WATCH: Australians return home to devastation after fires
Fire crisis has left 26 dead since September
The unprecedented fire crisis in southeast Australia that has claimed at least 26 lives since September, destroyed more than 2,000 homes and scorched an area twice the size of the U.S. state of Maryland has focused many Australians on how the nation adapts to climate change.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has come under withering criticism both at home and abroad for downplaying the need for his government to address climate change, which experts say helps supercharge the blazes.
Fire hides in the Australian bush for weeks after the main inferno moves through. So hundreds of firefighters are finding and dousing flames before an expected heatwave Friday causes another major flare up. <a href="https://twitter.com/CBCTheNational?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@CBCTheNational</a> <a href="https://t.co/c5YcKb7V71">pic.twitter.com/c5YcKb7V71</a>—@davidcommon
Last year was Australia's hottest and driest on record. The Bureau of Meteorology's head of climate monitoring, Karl Braganza, said while the country's rainfall was expected to pick up a bit, it wouldn't be enough to snuff out the blazes anytime soon.
"Unfortunately, we're not looking at widespread, above-average rainfalls at this stage," he said. "That's really what we need to put the fires out fairly quickly. It is going to be a campaign, in terms of the fires. We are not looking at a short and sharp end to the event — it looks like something that we will have to persist with for some time."
Charred trees, waves of smoke
Along a main roadway in southern NSW, forests of evergreen eucalyptus trees have taken on a ghostly autumnal appearance, with golden leaves and blackened trunks. The forests appear devoid of any wildlife. Outside, it often smells like a campfire that has been recently snuffed out, and hazy waves of smoke drift past.
In many small towns, most homes appear untouched apart from one or two that have been razed to the ground, sometimes with only a chimney stack still standing. People have hung signs and banners thanking the volunteer firefighters they call "firies." There are cars that are nothing more than burned-out chassis and wooden power poles that have been reduced to stumps. Not far from the communities, smoke can be seen rising from hills where the wildfires continue to rage.
Morrison has faced fierce backlash over what many Australians perceive as a slow, detached response to the wildfire crisis.
On Thursday, he found himself on the defensive again over an awkward exchange he had with locals on fire-ravaged Kangaroo Island. In a video of his visit to the island, where an outback safari operator and his son were killed in the blazes, Morrison was seen telling locals: "Thankfully, we've had no loss of life."
After he was corrected, he continued: "Yes, two, that's quite right. I was thinking about firefighters, firstly."
It was the latest in a string of gaffes for Morrison, who created a public uproar when he took a family vacation to Hawaii in the middle of the disaster. He has tried to strike a more compassionate image since, and earlier this week promised the government would commit an extra $2 billion Australian (around $1.8 billion Cdn) toward the fire recovery effort.
"Tomorrow's going to be a very difficult day in the eastern states," Morrison said during a news conference on Thursday. "Once again, I express my sincere condolences and sympathies to the families of all of those who have lost loved ones during the course of this terrible disaster. We will continue to remember them, but also their families in particular in what they need, in supporting them."
The NSW government responded to the crisis on Thursday by announcing an additional $1 billion to be spent over the next two years on wildfire management and recovery.
The Australian disaster is seen by many as a harbinger for other countries of the future consequences of global warming.
Pope Francis has joined world leaders in expressing solidarity with the Australian people.
"I'd like to ask for you all to pray to the Lord to help the [Australian] people at this difficult moment, with these powerful fires. I'm close to the Australian people," Francis said at the end of his general audience on Wednesday, drawing applause from congregants.
WATCH: First-hand look at devastation from Australia wildfires
Scale of destruction
The bushfires have razed more than 103,000 square kilometres of land — roughly the size of Nova Scotia — in recent months, particularly on the east coast.
The burned area in NSW state alone is more than five times larger than the whole expanse torched last year in Brazil, which saw major fires in the Amazon rainforest.
Combining the damage area from 2019 fires in California, Brazil and Indonesia still amounts to less than half the burned area in Australia.
The eastern states of Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria account for 84 per cent of that area, according to figures from their emergency fire services. The majority of fires have occurred in NSW state, blanketing Sydney, the continent's largest city, in smoke for much of December.
Victoria state has seen the worst fires of the past week. Navy warships and military aircraft have been used to evacuate hundreds trapped along the coast, as national parks were decimated.
Further north in Queensland, bushfire season typically starts in August, earlier in the year than NSW and Victoria. Here, more sporadic, smaller fires have been noted, as opposed to the mega fires of NSW.
Australia's fires have differed from other catastrophic blazes around the world in 2019, as a selection of its forest species, such as eucalyptus, actually rely on fire to regenerate.
But in terms of pure size, they have dwarfed others.
There are currently eight active fires in NSW and Victoria bigger than the largest blaze on record in California, the U.S. state well known for its deadly wildfires.
Firefighters are making the most of a few days of cooler temperatures in the southeast to prepare for the return of heat and wind later this week expected to fan existing blazes and spark new ones.