Thousands Evacuated as Wildfires Hit Southeast Australia

By Edward Johnson | December 30, 2019

Thousands of holiday-makers have evacuated a popular tourist spot in southeast Australia as a heatwave and strong winds fuel wildfires sweeping through the region.

But with temperatures hitting 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) Monday and blazes closing sections of the main highway, many more tourists and residents of East Gippsland are now unable to leave.

“It’s a very serious, life-threatening situation,” Bureau of Meteorology senior forecaster Kevin Parkyn told the ABC. Authorities warned that conditions in the forested coastal region are the worst since 2009 when the state’s Black Saturday blazes left 180 people dead.

The emergency is the latest development in a wildfire crisis that’s gripped Australia since blazes broke out months ago during the southern hemisphere winter amid a prolonged drought. The fires, which are affecting several states, have triggered an emotive debate about the impact of global warming in the world’s driest-inhabited continent.

At least 10 people have been killed and hundreds of homes destroyed, putting pressure on Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s conservative government, which champions the coal industry and has dismissed calls to take more steps to curb emissions. The latest casualty was a volunteer firefighter who was battling a blaze in New South Wales, according to the Rural Fire Service in a tweet.

Authorities on Sunday urged some 30,000 tourists to immediately leave East Gippsland, an area about the size of New Jersey, before the weather deteriorated. While many heeded the advice, officials say there wasn’t a mass exodus as holiday-makers chose to remain in popular towns such as Lakes Entrance, renowned for its inland waterways and pristine beaches.

Emergency warnings have been issued for eight fires in the region, about a four-hour drive east of the state capital Melbourne. Some of the fires are so large, they are generating their own weather systems and triggering dry thunderstorms, according to the Bureau of Meteorology. An emergency warning was also issued for suburbs just 15 kilometers north of central Melbourne, where a bushfire was moving through parkland and threatening homes.

A severe heatwave is spreading across the country. Parts of western Sydney are expected to reach 44 degrees Celsius by Tuesday, according to the Bureau of Meteorology.

Sydney’s New Year’s Eve fireworks celebrations, which draw tens of thousands of tourists to the city for the harborside spectacle, will go ahead regardless.

The city council has rejected a petition calling for the display to be scrapped and the money to be donated to bushfire and drought relief projects, saying the event is watched by millions of people worldwide and generates A$130 million ($91 million) for the local economy.

Still, the evening’s fireworks display in national capital Canberra has been canceled due to a total fire ban there. And an annual music festival in Lorne on Victoria’s Great Ocean Road has been canceled due to extreme fire conditions and about 9,000 festival-goers have been told to pack up and leave. Parts of South Australia face catastrophic fire conditions Monday, the highest rating on the state’s danger scale.

New South Wales has borne the brunt of the fires, which have burnt out more than 6 million acres of forest and bush land and destroyed the habitat of native animals such as koalas. Images of the marsupials drinking water from bottles after being rescued have gone viral on social media in recent days.

About 100 bush and grass fires were burning across the state Monday. A giant blaze northwest of Sydney, known as the Gospers Mountain fire, has destroyed more than 1.2 million acres — an area about seven times the size of Singapore.

Another massive blaze, the Currowan fire, has played havoc with holiday-makers along the coast south of Sydney, threatening tourist towns and forcing authorities to intermittently close the main highway. The fire stretches about 60 miles from Nowra to the resort town of Batemans Bay and has destroyed about 530,000 acres.

Morrison announced Sunday that many members of the largely volunteer Rural Fire Service in New South Wales would be eligible for compensation of as much as A$6,000 for their efforts if they are self-employed, work for small or medium businesses and have spent 10 days in the field.

–With assistance from Jihye Lee.

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