SYDNEY/MELBOURNE — Australian firefighters were set for a dangerous day Saturday as fires in the states of New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria were expected to burn out of control in temperatures above 40C (104F) and shifting, strong winds that will fan and spread the flames.
Authorities have said conditions could be worse than New Year’s Eve, when out-of-control fires forced thousands of residents and summer holidaymakers to seek refuge on beaches as the flames burned massive tracts of bushland.
“It’s going to be a long and difficult day for everybody,” NSW Rural Fire Services Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons told reporters.
More than 100 fires were burning in NSW Saturday and more than half were not contained, Fitzsimmons said, adding that winds that will shift throughout the day will spread the blazes.
“We know the fires we’ve got already ... but what we need to be vigilant about today as well is the prospect of any new fires that might start under these hot, dry, windy conditions,” he said.
In Victoria, where a state of disaster has been declared, there were evacuation recommendations for six fires, emergency warnings for six others and dozens still burning.
“We still have those dynamic and dangerous conditions, the low humidity, the strong winds, and what underpins that, the state is tinder dry. It is really, really dry at the moment,” Andrew Crisp, Victoria’s Emergency Management Commissioner, told reporters.
Authorities had urged people in areas covered by the state of disaster to evacuate, and said Saturday that tens of thousands of an estimated 100,000 people had left.
“But there are still significant populations in those areas,” said Graham Ashton, chief commissioner of Victoria Police. Those who stayed needed to monitor emergency announcements and fire tracking apps, he said.
Loss of life
There have been 10 deaths from the fires in NSW and Victoria so far this week, about half the total toll for the current fire season. Twenty-one people remain unaccounted for in Victoria, down from 28 reported Friday.
The focus Saturday is preventing more loss of life, authorities said.
To that end, national parks were closed and people were strongly urged earlier this week to evacuate large parts of NSW’s south coast and Victoria’s north eastern regions, magnets for holidaymakers at the peak of Australia’s summer school holidays.
State of emergency
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian has declared a weeklong state of emergency.
“All of the major road networks in NSW are still open, but we can’t guarantee that beyond the next few hours. So, there are still windows for people to get out if they wish to do so,” she said.
The Australian Navy ship HMAS Sycamore delivered the first load of evacuees from the isolated town of Mallacoota on Victoria’s east coast to near Melbourne, with a second vessel carrying around 900 people to dock late Saturday.
The town was cut off on New Year’s Eve by fires, and about 4,000 people were stranded on the beach. Road access is still blocked and heavy smoke has limited air access, leaving sea transport as the only reliable route out.