‘Leave Now’ – Australians Urged to Evacuate as ‘Catastrophic’ Fires Loom

By Colin Packham

SYDNEY – Firefighters across Australia’s east coast are bracing for “catastrophic” fire conditions as temperatures across the country’s most populous state were set to soar. Many South African expats have reported fires burning near to where they now live, and some in New Zealand posted photos of the smoke from Australia clouding up their skies.

A ferry passes in front of the Central Business District as smoke from bushfires shroud Sydney
A ferry passes in front of the Central Business District as smoke from bushfires shroud Sydney, Australia, November 11, 2019. REUTERS/Stephen Coates
A cluster of burnt out cars sit at a property at Rainbow Flat
A cluster of burnt out cars sit at a property at Rainbow Flat, Australia, November 11, 2019. AAP Image/Darren Pateman/via REUTERS
The Sydney Opera House is seen through smoke from bushfires in Sydney
The Sydney Opera House is seen through smoke from bushfires in Sydney, Australia, November 11, 2019. REUTERS/Stephen Coates
The Sydney Opera House is seen through smoke from bushfires in Sydney
The Sydney Opera House is seen through smoke from bushfires in Sydney, Australia, November 11, 2019. REUTERS/Stephen Coates

Authorities in Australia’s Queensland and New South Wales states declared a state of emergency on Monday, urging residents in areas deemed at most risk of fires to evacuate.

Sydney has been designated at “catastrophic fire danger” for Tuesday, when temperatures are expected to hit a high of 37 degrees Celsius, combining with powerful winds for potentially deadly conditions.

It is the first time the harbour city, which was shrouded in smoke on Tuesday morning, has been rated at that level since new fire danger ratings were introduced in 2009.


Home to more than 5 million people, Sydney is ringed by large areas of bush land, much of which remains tinder dry following little rain across the country’s east coast in recent months.

High-rise buildings are seen through smoke from bushfires during sunset in Sydney
FILE PHOTO: High-rise buildings are seen through smoke from bushfires during sunset in Sydney, Australia, November 11, 2019. REUTERS/Stephen Coates/File Photo

Seeking to avoid deaths, firefighters have been given broad powers to control government resources, force evacuations, close roads and shut down utilities. This will remain in place for seven days.

There were more than 50 fires raging across New South Wales, with half of them classed as uncontained.

About 3,000 firefighters were either deployed or on standby, along with thousands of other police and emergency service personnel, New South Wales Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons told a news conference.

“We have already got significant fires burning in the north coast of New South Wales. A number of those fires are exceeding 100,000 hectares alone,” said Fitzsimmons.

“So far this season we have burned more than 1 million hectares as a result of those fires. Last year the entire fire season in New South Wales burned only 280,000 hectares.”

Bushfires burning across NSW and Queensland states have already killed three people and destroyed more than 150 homes.

A dead tree is seen in a field shrouded by bushfire smoke near Glen Innes
A dead tree is seen in a field shrouded by bushfire smoke near Glen Innes, Australia, November 11, 2019. AAP Image/Dan Peled/via REUTERS
Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison and New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian receive briefing on the fires at Mid North Coast Fire Control Centre in Wauchope
Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison and New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian receive briefing on the fires at Mid North Coast Fire Control Centre in Wauchope, New South Wales, Australia, November 10, 2019. AAP Image/Darren Pateman/via REUTERS
Smoke from a large bushfire is seen from a roadblock outside Wytaliba, near Glen Innes
Smoke from a large bushfire is seen from a roadblock outside Wytaliba, near Glen Innes, Australia, November 10, 2019. AAP Image/Dan Peled/via REUTERS

Fitzsimmons urged people to evacuate before conditions worsened, warning that new fires can begin up to 20km (12 miles) ahead of established fires.

“Relocate while things are calm without the pressure or anxiety of fires bearing down the back door,” he said.

Authorities stressed that even fireproofed homes will not be able to withstand catastrophic conditions, which Fitzsimmons described as “when lives are lost, it’s where people die”.

Hundreds of schools will be closed on Tuesday. Public spaces have also been cleared to allow people to evacuate large pets such as horses.

On Monday afternoon, rescue services were moving large animals from high risk areas, while health officials warned that air quality across NSW will worsen as winds blow smoke from the current mid-north coast bushfires south. The state government advised anyone suffering respiratory conditions to stay indoors.

The fires have already had a devastating impact on Australia’s wildlife, with about 350 koalas feared dead in a major habitat.

Smoke from a large bushfire is seen outside Wytaliba, near Glen Innes
Smoke from a large bushfire is seen outside Wytaliba, near Glen Innes, Australia, November 10, 2019. AAP Image/Dan Peled/via REUTERS

An alarm and verbal warning will be played on radio and television stations every hour.

“Tomorrow (Tuesday) is about protecting life, protecting property and ensuring everybody is safe as possible,” NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian told reporters.

Authorities said the safer areas may be in large towns or cities, shopping centres or facilities far away from bushland areas.

CLIMATE CHANGE DEBATE

Australia’s worst bushfires on record destroyed thousands of homes in Victoria in February 2009, killing 173 people and injuring 414 on a day the media dubbed “Black Saturday”.

The current fires, however, come weeks ahead of the southern hemisphere summer, sharpening attention on the policies of Australia’s conservative government to address climate change.

Environmental activists and opposition lawmakers have used the fires to call on Prime Minister Scott Morrison, a supporter of the coal industry, to strengthen the country’s emissions targets.

Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison comforts 85-year-old evacuee Owen Whalan of Half Chain road in Koorainghat during a visit to Club Taree Evacuation Centre in Taree, New South Wales, Australia, November 10, 2019. AAP Image/Darren Pateman/via REUTERS
Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison talks to locals during a visit to Club Taree Evacuation Centre in Taree, New South Wales, Australia, November 10, 2019. AAP Image/Darren Pateman/via REUTERS

(Reporting by Colin Packham. Editing by Lincoln Feast, Timothy Heritage and Jane Wardell)

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