Australian authorities urged nearly a quarter of a million people to evacuate their homes on Friday and prepared military backup as soaring temperatures and erratic winds were expected to fan deadly bushfires across the east coast.
Temperatures were expected to shoot well above 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) in several parts of the country on Friday, accompanied by high winds, threatening to inflame fires that have already left thousands of people homeless.
“If you can get out, you should get out, you shouldn’t be in the remote and forested parts of our State,” Andrew Crisp, emergency management commissioner for the state of Victoria, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
Emergency alert text messages had been sent to 240,000 people in Victoria state alone, telling them to leave, Crisp said. People in high-risk regions in New South Wales and South Australia states were also urged to think about leaving, but authorities had not provided numbers.
Twenty-seven people have been killed and thousands subjected to repeat evacuations as monster – and unpredictable – fires have scorched through more than 10.3 million hectares (25.5 million acres) of land, an area the size of South Korea.
John White, Mayor of East Gippsland, an area that was ravaged by fires on New Year’s Eve, told Reuters that residents were on the move: “People aren’t taking any chances.”
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he had given instructions to the military so “that they are to stand ready to move and support immediately” as firefighters battle 150 blazes across the country.
Australia’s wildfires have dwarfed other catastrophic blazes around the world. Combining 2019 fires in California, Brazil and Indonesia still amounts to less than half the burnt area in Australia.
Australia’s government has maintained there is no direct link between climate change and the devastating bushfires, a stance that has prompted campaigners to plan worldwide protests for Friday.
“We don’t want job destroying, economy destroying, economy wrecking targets and goals which won’t change the fact that there are bushfires or anything like that in Australia,” Morrison told 2GB Radio, referring to calls for the government to commit to higher carbon emissions cuts.
Following are some highlights of what is happening in the bushfire crisis:
- There were 134 fires ablaze across New South Wales, with around 50 uncontained on Friday. All other fires were at the “advice” level, the lowest alert rating.
- Victoria state had 16 fires, two of which were so severe that evacuation orders have been issued. One more fire was at an emergency level.
- In South Australia state, nine fires were ablaze, one of which was at a emergency level.
- Climate protests were planned for Friday in several cities, including Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra, targeting the Australian government handling of the crisis and its position on climate change.
- Prime Minister Morrison said on Friday he was considering holding a wide-ranging national inquiry into the bushfires after the immediate crisis had passed.
- NSW authorities said just shy of 2,000 homes have been destroyed in the state, half of those in the past 10 days.
- Australian cricketer Shane Warne’s prized “baggy green” cap raised more than A$1 million at an auction for bushfire relief efforts
- Authorities have warned that the huge fires, spurred by high temperatures, wind and a three-year drought, will persist until there is substantial rainfall. The weather agency said there was no sign of that for months.
- Ecologists at the University of Sydney have estimated 1 billion animals have been killed or injured in the bushfires, potentially destroying ecosystems.
- Moody’s Analytics said the cost of the fires could easily surpass that of deadly 2009 Black Saturday fires that destroyed 450,000 hectares (1.1 million acres) of land, which cost an estimated A$4.4 billion.
- Morrison has pledged A$2 billion ($1.4 billion) to a newly created National Bushfire Recovery Agency.
- About 100 firefighters from the United States and Canada are helping, with another 140 expected in coming weeks.
- The fires have emitted 400 megatonnes of carbon dioxide and produced harmful pollutants, the European Union’s Copernicus monitoring programme said.
- Smoke has drifted across the Pacific, affecting cities in South America, and may have reached the Antarctic, the U.N. World Meteorological Organization said.