Thousands urged to evacuate in Australia as fire risk rises

Thousands of people were urged to evacuate parts of Australia’s southeast on Monday, as a new heatwave left firefighters across the country bracing for another round of potentially catastrophic bushfire.

Hundreds of blazes are burning across Australia, as a bushfire season that started earlier than usual in the southern hemisphere spring continues to wreak havoc.


More than 30,000 people were told to evacuate Victoria state’s popular East Gippsland region on Sunday amid fears soaring temperatures and gusting winds would increase three large blazes and cut off the last large road still open.

Victoria Emergency Management agency warned it was “not possible” to provide assistance to all visitors in the area.

“Although the area is quite remote, it is very popular at this time of year with families and holidaymakers going down the coast to spend Christmas and New Year,” said the ABC’s Zalika Rizmal, reporting for Al Jazeera from Port Melbourne. 

Neighbouring South Australia is also experiencing “catastrophic” fire conditions in some areas as temperatures reach above 40C (104F) and storms bring damaging winds.

The Country Fire Service’s Brenton Eden said it would be a “very dangerous” day for people in the state, with lightning already sparking a number of blazes.

‘Recipe for fire’

Conditions were also expected to deteriorate over the next two days in New South Wales, where 100 fires were burning on Monday morning including more than 40 which were not contained. 

This season’s bushfires have killed 10 people, destroyed more than 1,000 homes and scorched more than three million hectares (7.4 million acres) of land – an area bigger than Belgium. The fires have also shrouded Sydney and other large cities in a toxic smoke haze, forcing children to play indoors and causing professional sporting events to be cancelled. 

Australia fires

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison was heavily criticised for taking a holiday to Hawaii as the bush fires raged and was forced to cut short his trip to visit affected communities and the volunteer firefighters battling the blazes [Wolter Peeters/EPA]

Craig Lapsley, a former Victorian Emergency Management Commissioner, said it was a critical day for people in risk areas.

“It’s a heatwave,” he told Al Jazeera. “It’s 40 degrees in most locations, and if it’s not 40 it’s above 40, and the winds are very strong so that’s obviously the recipe for fires. The heat of the day heats up the forest and the grass and then the wind comes along and drives the fire.”

The crisis has focused attention on climate change, which scientists say is creating a longer and more intense bushfire season. The country is also grappling with a prolonged and devastating drought. 

While conservative Prime Minister Scott Morrison belatedly acknowledged a link between the fires and climate change, he has continued his staunch support of Australia’s lucrative coal mining industry and ruled out further action to reduce emissions.

A petition to cancel Sydney’s famous New Year’s Eve fireworks and use the money to fight bushfires ringing the city has topped 270,000 signatures, but officials say the show will go on.

Sydney has spent 6.5 million Australian dollars ($4.5m) on this year’s fireworks display, funds that the petition argues would be better spent on supporting volunteer firefighters and farmers suffering through the brutal drought.

Al Jazeera and news agencies

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