Tens of thousands of residents and holiday makers across a swathe of Australia’s southeast were urged to evacuate on Monday, as soaring temperatures and strong winds fanned massive bushfires.
Many tourists appeared to heed the warning to flee Victoria state’s East Gippsland region, an area popular with tourists that encompasses two national parks, lakes and coastal plains that is half the size of Belgium.
“This is a high risk day for Victoria,” the state’s Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp told media.
“This is a day we do not often see – our state is dry, it is going to be hot and very, very windy.”
Temperatures were forecast to top 43 degrees Celsius (109 Fahrenheit) in the state capital of Melbourne with strong winds expected to push the fires toward populated coastal areas, which Crisp said would create “huge issues”.
Bushfires have destroyed more than 4 million hectares (9.9 million acres) across Australia in recent weeks – an area the size of Japan. Eight deaths have been linked to the blazes.
Out-of-control fires are threatening to cut off the Princes Highway, according to emergency agencies, a major road artery that wraps around Australia’s southeast.
Alexandra Charlton, a tourist from Manchester, England, said she had turned around while en route to East Gippsland on Sunday after receiving news of the fire threat.
“We’ve already had to change our plans taking into account what we already knew about the fires, but then we had to change plans again,” Charlton told Reuters.
Around 100 fires are burning across Australia, the bulk of them in the southeast, across the states of Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia. But blazes are also threatening lives and homes on the other side of the country – fires in Western Australia, thousands of kilometers away from the country’s east, broke containment lines north of the port city of Albany on Sunday.
The most recent heat wave is even pushing temperatures in Australia’s southern island state of Tasmania – the country’s closest point to Antarctica – higher than in the mainland’s dry north.
SYDNEY HARBOR FIREWORKS
In New South Wales state, temperatures are forecast to spike on New Year’s Eve, when hundreds of thousands of people are expected to gather around the harbor in Sydney to watch the city’s world-famous firework celebrations.
Authorities said they are planning to push ahead with the celebrations, despite some calls for the fireworks to be canceled as they have been in rural locations amid fears they would spark more fires.
New South Wales Deputy Premier John Barilaro, who represents a rural district affected by drought and fire, said on Twitter on Monday the headline Sydney event should be canceled.
“If regional areas have had fireworks banned, then let’s not have two classes of citizens,” he tweeted.
Petitions requesting the event be canceled have also been presented to the state government, citing the huge event costs at a time firefighting resources are stretched.
However, local government officials backing the celebration point out it is a major tourism drawcard that fills hotels and restaurants in Sydney.
Meanwhile, volunteer firefighters, who make up a large part of the country’s firefighting resources, received some good news when the federal government said on Sunday it would compensate them for loss of income given the intensity of this year’s bushfire season.
Bowing to political pressure, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said payments of up to A$6,000 ($4,186) would be available for eligible crews who had spent more than 10 days in the field this season.
Morrison returned home early from holidaying in Hawaii ahead of Christmas following the death of two firefighters and amid criticism his government was doing too little to address climate change and a country-wide drought.