(Bloomberg) — Firefighters battled catastrophic wildfires sweeping southeastern Australia as searing temperatures and strong winds intensified the threat to lives and property in one of the worst days of the already weeks-long crisis.
Dozens of communities, from small towns on the south coast of New South Wales, to alpine villages in neighboring Victoria state, braced for extreme conditions as fires grew so large they generated dry thunderstorms.
Thousands of people, including tourists, had heeded the advice of authorities and evacuated a 350-kilometer (217-mile) stretch of coastline and also dangerous inland areas over the past two days to escape the intensifying infernos. But many remained, hosing down their properties to protect against falling embers as they anxiously waited to see if the winds would blow the fire front in their direction.
In Narooma, a seaside town of about 3,000 people, the sky was bathed in an orange glow from nearby blazes and those who remained prepared to spend the night sleeping in their cars in parkland close to the water’s edge. Inland, hundreds of evacuees camped in the town showground in Bega and endured pitch darkness as the thick smoke blocked out the sun and ash fell from the sky.
Two people died in wildfires that have destroyed more than a third of South Australia’s Kangaroo Island, devastating the national park and farmland and severely damaging the luxury Southern Ocean Lodge resort. Penrith, on the outskirts of Sydney, reached a record 48.9 degrees Celsius (120 degrees Fahrenheit) Saturday, symbolic of the dangerous weather conditions that have fanned ferocious flames and sparked new blazes further south.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced an unprecedented level of military support to boost firefighting and recovery efforts as the national death toll from four months of infernos rose to 23.
Australia Fire Maps: Where the Devastating Wildfires Are Burning
“Our country is facing devastating and widespread national bushfires,” Morrison told reporters in Canberra. “They have been burning throughout the country for months now, but today is shaping up as our most challenging day, with a state of emergency declared in New South Wales and Victoria, while Tasmania and South Australia also face significant threats.”
Here’s the latest (all times local):
Long Night Ahead (8:25 p.m.)
New South Wales Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons told the ABC that 80-kilometer-an-hour winds are fanning flames as a southerly front makes its way up the coast. “It’s going to be a long night ahead,” he said. The southerly front should lower temperatures and bring some respite. But he warned that without rain, there was no end in sight to the crisis, with thousands of kilometers of fire front burning.
Singer donates (8:15 p.m.)
Pop singer Pink will donate $500,000 toward the firefighting efforts in Australia, she said in a tweet Saturday.
“I am totally devastated watching what is happening in Australia right now with the horrific bushfires,” she said, adding links to where people could donate to regional fire services.
Evacuate now (6:30 p.m.)
Thirteen emergency warnings are current across the state of Victoria, with residents told to “evacuate now” in three areas, Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp told reporters in Melbourne. About 1,000 firefighters battled 73 new wildfires Saturday of which 53 are still blazing, mostly in the state’s northeast, he said.
Almost 900,000 hectares (2.2 million acres) in Victoria have been burned, Premier Daniel Andrews said. There are six people missing in the state, 15 fewer than earlier in the day, he said.
Fire conditions will present “a challenge tonight, tomorrow and next weekend,” Andrews said.
Power outage (5:40 p.m.)
Power transmission has been lost in the Snowy Mountains region, said Matt Kean, the New South Wales state minister for energy and environment. Residents are asked to curb electricity usage, with supply expected to tighten around 6 p.m.
Emergency Warnings (4:30 pm)
About 148 wildfires are burning in New South Wales, mostly in the state’s southeastern quadrant, New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian told reporters in Sydney. A dozen blazes have prompted “emergency” warnings.
Wind gusts of as much as 80 kilometers an hour are predicted to reach fire-afflicted areas late Saturday, potentially fanning the inferno. Thunderstorm activity is adding to the threat.
“We are in for a long night,” Berejiklian said. “We are yet to hit the worst of it.” No deaths have been recorded in the state Saturday because of the blazes, which are being fought by thousands of firefighters, she said, adding that the situation is “volatile.”
Tasmania reported four brush fires in the northeastern area of Fingal posing a heightened level of threat.
While no wildfires have been reported in the Australian Capital Territory, windy conditions and record-high temperatures — reaching 43.5 degrees Celsius in Canberra — make it “a day of extreme fire danger,” Chief Minister Andrew Barr told a separate media briefing.
Worsening weather (2:30 p.m.)
Conditions are deteriorating across New South Wales, prompting warnings for communities on the South Coast, the Snowy Mountains, and Sydney’s doorstep to take shelter, ABC reported. Fires encroaching on highways have prompted advice to affected residents that it is too late to leave.
Victoria’s Police and Emergency Services Minister Lisa Neville identified the second person to die in the state’s fires as a timber worker from Maramingo Creek, in East Gippsland.
Military support (1:00 p.m.)
Australia will ramp up its response to the country’s wildfire disaster, deploying additional army, naval and aircraft services, Morrison told a televised media briefing.
As many as 3,000 army reserve personnel will be called out to support firefighters in an unprecedented response to a natural disaster, while HMAS Adelaide, the Royal Australian Navy’s largest amphibious ship, will sail from Sydney on Saturday afternoon, joining two other naval vessels in assisting with evacuation efforts, Morrison said.
Additional defense measures outlined Saturday include deploying three Chinook helicopters, spending of A$20 million ($14 million) to lease four extra water-bombing aircraft and the establishment of a national recovery agency.
The scale-up will be aimed at saving lives, supporting the evacuation of affected people and assisting isolated communities, and aiding state-managed evacuation centers, Morrison said.
Kangaroo Island deaths (10:45 a.m.)
Fires that have been burning since Dec. 20 on Kangaroo Island, off the South Australian coast, overran a car killing its two occupants, the state’s assistant police commissioner Linda Williams told reporters in Adelaide.
More than 500 people are battling blazes across the island, a prominent tourist destination, scorching much of the Flinders Chase National Park and devastating wildlife. Improved weather conditions Saturday are helping to bring the infernos under control, said Mark Jones, chief of the Country Fire Service.
Mass Exodus (8:00 a.m.)
Tens of thousands of people in New South Wales have altered their travel plans or relocated because of the warnings, New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian told reporters in Sydney. Across Victoria, about 100,000 people have been urged to evacuate amid concerns that blazes could be unstoppable, ABC reported.
“In the south coast of New South Wales and eastern Victoria, we have seen the largest evacuation in Australia’s peacetime history,” Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese told reporters in Adelaide. “The human impact through the loss of life, the impact in terms of injuries, the impact in terms of mental health in the long term from people who’ve experienced horrors that are quite frankly unimaginable.”
–With assistance from Edward Johnson.
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