SYDNEY: Australian authorities declared a seven-day state of emergency in New South Wales state Thursday (Dec 19) as a record heat wave fanned unprecedented bushfires raging across the region.
As thousands of firefighters battled blazes, temperatures neared 50 degrees Celsius in some places and authorities warned the extreme weather conditions could get even worse.
In New South Wales, Australia's most populated state with Sydney as its capital, more than 100 bushfires were burning on Thursday, many of them out of control.
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said the state of emergency, the second declared in the state since an early, drought-fueled bushfire season began in September, was due to "catastrophic weather conditions".
Australia on Wednesday broke all-time heat records for the second day running, with maximum temperatures reaching an average of 41.9 degree Celsius, the Bureau of Meteorology said.
Bureau of Meteorology forecaster Dean Narramore said the "dangerous and disastrous" heatwave was toppling dozens of "extraordinary" records across the country.
"We're heading into a fifth or sixth day in a row where multiple places broke a record. And we're likely to see 30 or 40 records around the country break," he told the ABC.
Turbulent winds of up to 100km in the afternoon were expected to fan bushfires burning ever-closer to the city.
Authorities said nearly 120 fires remained ablaze by late afternoon, more than half of which are uncontrolled, and with temperatures forecast to top 45 Celsius in some areas, officials warned residents to be on high alert.
In Shoalhaven, a popular coastal destination some 190km south of Sydney, local mayor Amanda Findley said people were poised to evacuate.
"There is a large amount of smoke looming over the city, which shows how close the fire is," Findley told Reuters by telephone. "It is extremely hot and windy now so we are all worried the fire could spread. People are really worried that they may lose everything."
The state of emergency declaration gave firefighters broad powers to control government resources, force evacuations, close roads and shut down utilities across New South Wales, which is home to more than 7 million people.
"STRIKE TEAMS" ON STANDBY
There are 2,000 firefighters battling the blazes with the support of US and Canadian teams, as well as Australia Defence Force personnel.
New South Wales Rural Fire Service commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said five 100-person "strike teams" were on standby to deploy to the most dangerous fires.
"The worst of the fire weather conditions, the extreme fire danger ratings we are expecting today, are centred around the greater Sydney environment," he added.
Fitzsimmons said some firefighters had been left "shattered" after losing their own homes while saving other properties.
"They and their families and colleagues are truly devastated by the loss," he said. "It will be another very emotional, very draining day for our firefighters."
The extreme weather is also causing major health concerns, with leading doctors this week labelling the smoke haze that has shrouded Sydney for weeks a "public health emergency".
Hospitals have been recording large increases in emergency room visits for respiratory problems, including a dramatic 80 per cent spike when air quality plummeted on Dec 10.
The current state of emergency will last for seven days, while a total fire ban that has been in place since Tuesday will remain until midnight on Saturday.
The major fires around Sydney, which is home to more than 5 million people, have resulted in days of heavy pollution in the city usually known for its sparkling harbour and blue skies.
One megafire in the Kanangra Boyd National Park to the city's southwest had crept to the very outskirts of Campbelltown, a suburb of 157,000 people.
By late afternoon, Sydney was sitting at No. 4 on the IQAir AirVisual live rankings of pollution in global cities, above Dhaka, Mumbai, Shanghai and Jakarta.
Many commuters have donned breathing masks in recent weeks as air quality has plunged to hazardous levels not previously seen in the city.
More than 70 fires are also raging across Queensland state to the north of NSW, including one at Peregian, near the coastal tourist hub of Noosa, that forced people to flee their homes Wednesday. Bushfires are also burning in South Australia and Western Australia.
At least three million hectares of land has been torched across Australia in recent months, with six people killed and more than 800 homes destroyed.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has weathered a storm of criticism on social media in recent days for going on an overseas holiday during the emergency, adding to criticism that his government is failing to deliver adequate climate change policies.
As local media reported Morrison was in Hawaii on a family holiday, about 500 protestors gathered outside his official Sydney residence to demand urgent action on climate change. Morrison's office refused to confirm his whereabouts.
One protestor, wearing an Hawaiian shirt, carried a sign reading, "ScoMo, where the bloody hell are you?" referencing the leader's nickname and a decade-old international advertisement for Tourism Australia that was banned in several countries because the language was deemed offensive.
Australia's low-lying Pacific neighbours have been particularly critical of the coal-rich nation's climate policies following modest progress at the UN climate talks in Madrid.
"It was particularly disappointing to see our Pacific cousins in Australia actively standing in the way of progress at a time when we have been watching in horror as their own country is ablaze," Marshall Islands president Hilda Heine said in a statement on Wednesday.
Scientists say the blazes have come earlier and with more intensity than usual due to global warming and a prolonged drought that has left the land tinder dry and many towns running out of water.