Authorities have declared a state of emergency over a broad stretch of the east coast of Australia on Monday, and have urged high-risk residents to evacuate before the threat of “catastrophic” fire conditions.
Forest fires in New South Wales (NSW) and the states of Queensland have already killed three people and destroyed more than 150 homes. Officials expect the adverse heat and wind conditions to reach an unprecedented high on Tuesday.
Forest fires are a common and deadly threat in the hot, dry summers of Australia, but the current severe outbreak, well before the summer peak, has surprised many.
“Everyone must be alert, wherever you are and everyone must accept the worst, and we must not allow complacency to creep in,” NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian told reporters in Sydney.
The most densely populated city in the country has been designated as a “catastrophic fire hazard” for Tuesday, when temperatures up to 37 degrees Celsius (98.6 degrees Fahrenheit) are predicted to combine with powerful winds for potentially deadly conditions. It is the first time that Sydney has been assessed at that level since new fire hazard assessments were introduced in 2009.
Home to more than 5 million people, Sydney is surrounded by large parts of bushland, many of which remain dry after little rain over the east coast of the country in recent months.
“Tomorrow is about protecting life, protecting property, and making sure everyone is safe,” said Berejiklian.
Lawmakers said that the state of emergency throughout the state – giving firefighters broad powers to control state resources, force evacuations, close roads and close utilities – would last seven days.
On Monday afternoon, the fire brigade gave permission for the use of the standard emergency warning signal, an alarm and a verbal warning that is played every hour on radio and television stations.
NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons urged people to evacuate before the conditions worsened, and warned that new fires could start up to 20 km (12 miles) before established fires.
“Move while things are calm without the pressure or fear of fires pulling down the back door,” he said.
Authorities stressed that even fireproof homes will not be able to withstand catastrophic conditions, which Fitzsimmons described as “when lives are lost, it is where people die”.
More than 100 schools are closed on Tuesday.
On Monday afternoons, rescue services brought large animals from high-risk areas, while health officials warned that air quality over NSW would deteriorate as winds blow smoke from current forest fires on the mid-north coast to the south.
The fires have already had a devastating impact on wildlife in Australia, with around 350 koalas fearing death in a large habitat.
Climate change debate
The worst wildfires in Australia destroyed thousands of homes in Victoria in February 2009, killing 173 people and injuring 414 on a day the media called “Black Saturday.”
However, the current fires are weeks ahead of the southern hemisphere summer, drawing attention to Australia’s conservative government’s policy of tackling climate change.
Environmentalists and opposition legislators have used the fires to call on Prime Minister Scott Morrison, a supporter of the coal industry, to strengthen the country’s emissions targets.
Morrison refused to answer questions about whether the fires were related to climate change when he visited areas hit by fire in northern NSW this weekend.
Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack Monday accused climate activists of politicizing a tragedy at the expense of people in the danger zones.
“What we do is take real and meaningful action to reduce global emissions without stopping all our industries,” McCormack told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.
“They don’t need the fun of pure, illuminated and green capital green when they are trying to save their homes.”