Bushfires fueled by searing heat and gusting winds roared through more communities in southeastern Australia on Saturday (January 4), with authorities warning that many would become uncontrollable as conditions worsened.
Tens of thousands were evacuated ahead of advancing fire fronts in the states of New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria, with South Australia also on high alert after a warm front swept in from the west late on Friday (January 3).
Two people were confirmed dead on Kangaroo Island, a world heritage site southwest of Adelaide, taking the national fires death toll to at least 20. Over 1,500 homes have so far been lost to the raging firestorms, according to official estimates.
Stung by criticism of its slow response to the emergency, Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government mobilized 3,000 army reservists and called in additional military resources to help with evacuations and fire rebuilding efforts.
HMAS Adelaide, a 27,500-ton amphibious vessel, sailed from Sydney on January 3 to assist with evacuations from East Gippsland, where more than 1,000 people were rescued.
Three more Chinook helicopters, a C-17 Globemaster transporter and two C-121 Hercules have been deployed to help the relief efforts.
The government has also ordered four more water-bombing planes, including two fixed-wing DC-10s that can carry 30,000 liters of retardant.
“Today’s decision puts more boots on the ground, puts more planes in the sky, puts more ships at sea, and puts more trucks to roll in to support affected communities,” Morrison said in Canberra.
Morrison was abused and ridiculed earlier in the week when he visited towns hit by the fires, where residents feel their firefighters have not been given sufficient resources to protect local populations and their homes.
In a widely reported incident that has gone viral on social media, a pregnant woman and firefighter both refused to shake Morrison’s hand in a NSW south coast town ravaged by the blazes.
Morrison’s government has consistently played down any link between the fires and climate change, and said it will not be abandoning its commitment to coal and other fossil fuels, which are a crucial source of export revenues.
But as the death and destruction rises, his government is paying a political price for a stance many see as out of touch with the scorched earth reality on the ground.
Temperatures exceeded 45 degrees centigrade on the south coast of NSW and in Victoria’s Gippsland region, which were both ravaged by bushfires on New Year’s Eve.
Gusts of 90 kilometers per hour were recorded in some areas, combining some existing blazes into mammoth fire fronts 60-70 kilometers long.
A cold front began to arrive in the afternoon, but it was accompanied by a wind change that shifted blazes toward new fire grounds.
The Hume Highway, the main artery between Sydney and Melbourne, the nation’s two biggest and most economically important cities, has been blocked by a fire in northeastern Victoria. A second fire near Bargo in southwestern Sydney is also expected to cross the road.
Residents of Victorian alpine towns had to be air-lifted out by helicopter after the wind shift suddenly reversed a fire front in the East Gippsland region. Two power stations have been burned out in the NSW alpine region, cutting supplies to at least 80,000 households on the south coast.
Victorian police estimate that 70,000 people have fled from East Gippsland alone since a state emergency was declared for the region.
Military helicopters were trying on Saturday to reach 18 remote Gippsland communities to check on the welfare of residents and provide satellite phones and provisions. As of late Saturday, they had only made it to two towns, reports said.
Another 4,500 were waiting to be taken out by navy ships late on Saturday. Six people are listed as missing in Victoria, down from an earlier estimate of 21.
Victorian Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp admitted his state’s resources were stretched to the limit, with “literally hundreds and hundreds of kilometers of active fire edge, of uncontained fire.”
“The major risk is the fires we don’t know about, the new starts. Crews will be so busy protecting communities that fighting new fires in dangerous conditions will be very difficult,” Crisp warned.
Firefighters are battling a huge complex of joined fires in East Gippsland that stretches from the coast to the NSW border, a second grouping of blazes in alpine regions and a batch of fires at Corryong in the northeast.
Fourteen emergency level fire zones have been declared in Victoria and 15 in NSW.
There were 148 bushfires burning in NSW, with 70 reportedly out of control. They included a blaze covering 264,000 hectares on the southwestern edge of Sydney, Australia’s biggest city, that is threatening dozens of suburbs.
A south coast fire centered on Currowan has burned more than 260,000 hectares and several uncontrolled fires are burning on Mount Kosciuszko and the Snowy Mountains, where populations were evacuated on Friday.
Scores of houses were destroyed in NSW and Victoria on Saturday, but there were no confirmed reports of deaths. More than 1,500 properties have been lost to the blazes, with an estimated four million hectares of land burned out.
It is estimated that 500 million animals have so far been killed in the fires.
Victorian authorities said they expected the fires to continue burning for at least six weeks, when they may ultimately run out of fuel.
They said it was unlikely that any major blazes could be extinguished without sustained rains, and no strong downfalls are currently predicted.
Editors Note: This report will be continuously updated with breaking developments