MELBOURNE: Australian authorities urged another mass evacuation across the heavily populated southeast on Thursday (Jan 9) as a return of hot weather fanned huge bushfires threatening several towns and communities.
A disaster level notice in large parts of Victoria state, already in place for the past week, was extended by 48 hours and people in danger zones were advised to leave if it was safe to do so.
Victoria state premier Daniel Andrews urged communities to be on alert ahead of the extreme conditions.
"If you receive instructions to leave, then you must leave," Andrews said in a televised briefing. "That is the only way to guarantee your safety."
Victoria Emergency Services Minister Lisa Neville said in a televised briefing, "Don't get complacent from the rain we have had recently," referring to several days of cool weather that has allowed firefighters to strengthen containment lines around blazes that have been burning for months.
"These fires are absolutely still moving, still growing in our landscape and they pose significant risk to communities," Neville said.
Authorities have said the blazes will continue to burn, posing extreme danger at times of high temperatures and winds, until the country experiences significant rainfall.
The official weather agency on Thursday confirmed fears that there was no sign of that happening in the next few months as it released its annual report, which also showed that 2019 was Australia's hottest and driest year on record.
While there was some rainfall coming from the north it would not be enough to douse the bushfires raging in the country's southeast, the bureau said.
"While the rainfall will be welcome, we’re stopping short of saying that it’s going to be drought-breaking or really relieving the conditions we’ve seen," the Bureau of Meteorology’s manager of climate monitoring Karl Braganza told reporters at a briefing on its annual climate statement.
Parts of Kangaroo Island, a wildlife-rich tourist spot off the southeast coast where Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Wednesday made a plea for foreign tourists not to be deterred by the fires, were again evacuated on Thursday.
"I urge everyone to heed warnings, follow advice, and to head to the east part of the island, which is deemed safe at this point," South Australia Fire Chief Mark Jones said in a separate briefing in Adelaide.
A third of the island has been destroyed.
Twenty-seven people have been killed this fire season, according to the federal government, as the monster fires have scorched through more than 10.3 million hectares of land, an area the size of South Korea.
Thousands have been made homeless and thousands have had to evacuate repeatedly because of the volatility of the fires.
Residents of the coastal town of Mallacoota, where thousands of people were stranded on a beach for days until a military evacuation that only ended on Wednesday, were among those again advised to flee.
"If we evacuate, where do we go?" said Mark Tregellas, who spent New Year's Eve on a boat ramp as fire destroyed much of his town, and one of about 1,000 people who decided to stay.
"The electricity is slowly coming back but everyone is reliant on generators, and fuel for those is very limited," he told Reuters by telephone from his house.
"People have now run out of petrol so most in the town are now riding on bicycles."
CLIMATE CHANGE TRENDS WILL CONTINUE
The current crisis was sparked into life following a three-year drought that has left much of the country's bushland vulnerable to fires.
Many towns were without power and telecommunications and some were running low on drinking water supplies. Smoke has blanketed Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra, and drifted as far as South America.
The meteorology bureau said climate change and natural drivers, including warmer than normal waters in the Indian Ocean off Africa, had made 2019 Australia's hottest and driest year on record, with the highest ever forest fire danger rating.
The country had only 6 per cent of its typical annual rainfall last year, while daytime temperatures across were more than 2 degrees Celsius above normal.
"These are large departures that we saw in 2019, both in terms of how different they were to the average temperatures and rainfall that we see, but also compared to previous records as well," Braganza said.
He said these were part of longer term trends in temperature and fire weather that the bureau has observed. Rainfall has been tracked since 1900 and temperatures since 1910.
"Australia's getting warmer, the fire season's getting longer and the severity of the fire weather during that season is getting more frequent and severe," Braganza said.
"When we look at the projections that we do for climate change, certainly Australia should be preparing for those trends to continue."
Some of the measures being undertaken to address the bushfire crisis:
- A water bombing helicopter ditched in a dam on New South Wales South Coast on Thursday. The pilot was safe.
- Authorities have warned that the huge fires, spurred by high temperatures, wind and a three-year drought, will persist until there is substantial rainfall. The weather agency said there was no sign of that for months.
- Weather officials in South Australia issued a severe weather warning for some parts of the state's north.
- New South Wales fire officials warned of "extreme fire danger" in the state's alpine region.
- Victoria state extended its disaster alert level for another two days.
- The prime minister has pledged A$2 billion (US$1.4 billion) to a newly created National Bushfire Recovery Agency.
- New South Wales announced new funding of A$1 billion (US$686 million) to rebuild.
- Mining magnate Andrew Forrest pledged A$70 million to a recovery package, including a force of more than 1,000 volunteers from the mining and agriculture sectors to help with rebuilding.