Australia evacuates parts of its capital as bushfire conditions return

By Byron Kaye and Colin Packham

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Some residents of Australia’s capital Canberra were evacuated briefly on Wednesday after a bushfire broke out near the airport as searing hot weather ended a few days of respite and the number of out-of-control blazes surged in the southeast of the country.

Roads were closed and the authorities told people to leave or stay away from suburbs east of Canberra, as photos posted on social media showed gray smoke billowing above the city’s suburbs. There were no reports of injuries or damage, and the warning was downgraded an hour later.

“I can see the smoke from my house,” said Kane Cawse, a gym owner, by telephone as he drove toward his business in the evacuation zone about 14 km (9 miles) from the country’s parliament.

“I’m just going to see exactly what’s going on, make sure I’ve got a gym and make sure that the guys are either safe or out,” he added.

In recent weeks, Canberra and the cities of Sydney and Melbourne experienced air quality rated among the worst in the world under thick clouds of bushfire smoke.

The fire broke out as a huge dust storm crossed the country’s south, leaving skies deep orange and engulfing some outback towns, the Bureau of Meteorology said.

Since September, hundreds of wildfires in Australia have killed 29 people as well as an estimated 1 billion native animals, while incinerating 2,500 homes and a total area of bushland larger than the size of Austria.

Firefighters had taken advantage of rain and milder temperatures in the past week to contain blazes, but the respite ended on Wednesday when high temperatures and winds returned.

An economic survey on Wednesday meanwhile showed the fires were causing Australians to tighten their purse strings, a sign the natural disaster is putting pressure on the world’s 14th-biggest economy.

Economists said the cost to Australia’s A$1.95 trillion ($1.33 trillion) economy could be as high as A$5 billion ($3.4 billion), shaving 0.25 points off gross domestic product in the December and March quarters, and potentially prompting the central bank to cut rates as early as February.

Consumer sentiment in January was 6.2% lower than a year earlier, according to the Melbourne Institute and Westpac Bank survey released on Wednesday. Consumer sentiment data is considered a leading indicator, running ahead of actual spending data.

The huge bushfires have cut through the country’s east coast during the peak summer months when many businesses usually rake in earnings from both domestic and foreign tourists. Agricultural sectors, particularly the dairy industry, have also been hard hit.

Here are today’s key events in the bushfire crisis:

* Suburbs near Canberra Airport were evacuated late on Wednesday as an emergency level fire burned. There were no reports of injury or damage.

* The wildfires have killed 29 people, destroyed more than 2,500 homes and razed 11 million hectares (27 million acres) of wilderness – an area one-third the size of Germany – since September.

* Scores of fires were burning in the states of New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria on Wednesday. Temperatures in Victoria were expected to top 32 degrees Celsius (89.6 Fahrenheit) on Wednesday, leading officials to declare “extreme fire danger” in some areas. Temperatures in NSW were forecast to hit 40C (104F) on Thursday.

* A Reuters analysis shows that Australian animals living in specific habitats, such as mountain lizards, leaf-tailed geckos and pear-shaped frogs, are battling the threat of extinction after fierce bushfires razed large areas of their homes.

* The air in Sydney is expected to again reach hazardous pollution levels on Thursday as smoke drifts over the city, the NSW state government said.

* Players at the Australian Open tennis tournament continued to make pledges of financial assistance. Among the latest were the seventh seed, Alexander Zverev, who said he would donate A$10,000 for each match he wins and pledged his entire prize money of A$4.12 million if he wins the tournament. American John Isner has pledged 25% of all his prize money and A$100 for every ace he serves.

(Reporting by Byron Kaye, Colin Packham and Swati Pandey in Sydney; editing by Jane Wardell and Christian Schmollinger)

Australia’s bushfire-stricken east welcomes drenching rain

By Lidia Kelly

MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Intense thunderstorms with heavy rains dampened bushfires on Australia’s east coast on Friday, to the relief of exhausted firefighters and farmers battling years of drought, and granting a reprieve to the organisers of next week’s Australian Open.

Australia, famous for its pristine beaches and wildlife, has been fighting bushfires since September, with fires killing 29 people and millions of animals, and destroying more than 2,500 homes while razing an area roughly a third the size of Germany.

Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland, three of the states most affected by drought and bushfires welcomed this week’s drenching rain, with fire services saying it would not extinguish all the blazes, but would greatly aid containment.

“Our fingers are crossed that this continues over the coming days,” New South Wales fire services said on Twitter on Friday.

Severe storms are forecast to continue in many fire-stricken regions of New South Wales and Queensland, including areas that have not seen heavy falls for years, weather officials in New South Wales said, slightly easing a three-year drought.

“The recent rain has just been absolutely fantastic,” said cattle farmer Sam White near the northern town of Guyra in New South Wales.

“It’s producing significant amounts of runoff, which is what we need, and it’s getting into our dams.”

While the wet weather brings relief to fire fighters and drought-hit farmers, it also comes with dangers, such as flash flooding and falling trees. One wildlife park had to rescue koalas from floodwaters and beat back crocodiles with brooms.

The heavy downpours have helped to clean smoky air in Australia, but Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne remained in the world’s top 100 polluted cities on Friday, a pollution ranking by AirVisual showed.

Melbourne, shrouded this week in thick smoke that disrupted the Australian Open qualifying matches and other competitions, is forecast to again be blanketed by unhealthy air over the weekend, before the Grand Slam begins in earnest on Monday.

But fears the smoke would return on Saturday for the final round of qualifying eased on Friday, when the Environmental Protection Agency forecast air quality in the Melbourne area would be “moderate” rather than “very poor”.

The smoke haze plaguing Australia’s major cities for weeks has been tracked by NASA circumnavigating the globe and the space agency’s satellites showed on Thursday there was also a large concentration of lower smoke over the Pacific Ocean.

Here are key events in the bushfire crisis:

* Early on Friday, 82 fires were burning across New South Wales, 30 uncontained, and several in Victoria, fire authorities said.

* An emergency evacuation order was issued for parts of Victoria’s northeast, with an out-of-control bushfire threatening the Buffalo River Valley.

* Firefighters, family and the community of Holbrook in New South Wales bade farewell to Samuel McPaul, a 28-year-old volunteer who died in December while fighting a massive and fast-moving blaze.

* Australia will have to wait until March for rains heavy enough to bring sustained relief from dry weather that has fuelled the bushfires, the weather bureau said.

* Top tourism body estimates the bushfire crisis has cost the Australian industry almost A$1 billion ($690 million). [L4N29L069]

* Players’ complaints about pollution blighted qualifying rounds of the Australian Open in Melbourne, the year’s first tennis Grand Slam.

 

(Reporting by Lidia Kelly; Editing by Michael Perry and Clarence Fernandez)

Australia ‘open for business’ as cool change eases bushfire threat

By Kate Lamb

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia urged foreign tourists on Tuesday to put aside concerns about raging bushfires after the United States downgraded a travel warning, even as thick smoke disrupted preparations for the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne.

Australia is experiencing one of its worst bushfire seasons on record, with fires burning since September and claiming the lives of 28 people, destroying more than 2,500 homes and razing forests and farmland the size of Bulgaria.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison welcomed the U.S. move to scale back its travel warning and said Australia was “very much open for business”, amid concerns the fires would damage the tourism industry and the broader economy.

The United States last week warned citizens to exercise increased caution when traveling to Australia due to the fire risks, putting it on the same Level Two advisory as protest-wracked Hong Kong.

In its latest update, the State Department revised the advisory to Level One meaning “exercise normal precautions”, however it maintained a Level Two warning for fire-hit areas including the central tablelands of New South Wales state and southeastern Victoria state.

Australia’s tourism industry accounts for more than 3% of the country’s A$1.95 trillion ($1.4 trillion) annual economic output. Americans are among the top visitors.

Victoria’s state capital Melbourne, Australia’s second-biggest city and a major tourist drawcard, was blanketed in hazardous smoke on Tuesday although cooler weather had eased the fire danger.

The city’s air quality dropped to the “worst in the world” overnight as cooler temperatures brought particles in the air close to the ground, a senior state health official said. Residents were advised to stay indoors, bring pets inside and keep windows closed.

In Melbourne, a tennis player collapsed in a coughing fit and retired from Australian Open qualifying as organizers faced a storm of criticism for plowing ahead with matches despite the hazardous air quality.

The bushfires have affected a number of elite sporting competitions over the Australian summer including soccer, rugby league and cricket, and poor air quality has raised fears for players’ health at tennis’s first Grand Slam of the year.

The fires have also created an ecological disaster for native species including koalas and rock wallabies.

PERSISTENT THREAT

Despite cooler weather this week, officials warned that bushfire threat was far from over.

At least 145 fires continued to burn across Victoria and New South Wales (NSW) states although widespread rainfall is forecast for fire-hit areas on the east coast from Wednesday.

About 18 bushfires were yet to be contained in NSW, Australia’s most populous state, while in Victoria authorities upgraded warnings to show one fire burning at an “emergency level” and seven fires at the ‘Watch and Act’ category, one level below emergency status.

Morrison’s conservative government has faced domestic and international criticism for its handling of the fire threat and its response to climate change.

Climate scientists warned that Australia’s fires were a harbinger of what was to come for the rest of the world as the planet warmed due to human activity.

“Temperature conditions in Australia are extreme at the moment but they are what we expect to happen on average in a world of three degrees of global warming,” said Richard Betts, Head of Climate Impacts Research at Britain’s Met Office Hadley Centre.

“It brings it home to you what climate change means.”

(GRAPHIC: Sizing up Australia’s bushfires – https://graphics.reuters.com/AUSTRALIA-BUSHFIRES-SCALE/0100B4VK2PN/index.html)

(Reporting by Kate Lamb; Additional reporting by Swati Pandey; Editing by Stephen Coates & Simon Cameron-Moore)

Australia urges quarter of a million to flee as winds fan huge bushfires

By Martin Petty and Swati Pandey

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia urged nearly a quarter of a million people to evacuate their homes on Friday and prepared military backup as authorities said the next few hours could be “very, very challenging” even as rain poured down in some parts.

Defense personnel stood ready to move to bushfire grounds if conditions became extreme, Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters, as soaring temperatures and erratic winds create dangerous conditions.

“Even with rain in Melbourne, even with forecast better conditions next week, there is a long way to go in what has been an unprecedented fire event…and, of course, we know that we have many weeks of the fire season to run,” Daniel Andrews, the premier of Victoria, told a televised briefing.

“The next few hours are going to be very, very challenging.”

While the winds are expected to move through by Saturday morning, Andrews urged residents to stay on high alert and leave the community “if you are told to”.

Authorities sent emergency texts to 240,000 people in Victoria, telling them to leave. People in high-risk regions in New South Wales and South Australia were also urged to think about leaving, but officials did not say how many.

GRAPHIC: Sizing up Australia’s bushfires .

Since October, 27 people have been killed and thousands subjected to repeat evacuations as huge and unpredictable fires scorched more than 10.3 million hectares (25.5 million acres) of land, an area roughly the size of South Korea.

In the coastal town of Eden in New South Wales, where the alert status was upgraded to ‘watch and act’ on Friday evening, smoke filled the horizon as winds blew smoke and ash.

Shereen and Kim Green, who live on a farm with three houses and 50 cattle just outside Eden, were racing to fill two 1,000-litre tanks of water.

“This is to put out the spot fires and we’ll be staying up all night to defend our property,” said Shereen, as the wind shook her utility vehicle. “We’re taking the opportunity while we can.”

Sitting under the town’s watchtower, another resident Robyn Malcolm said: “If it all goes wrong, we’ll dash down to the wharf and get on a tugboat.”

Here are key events in the crisis:

* Of 160 fires ablaze across New South Wales (NSW), about 46 were uncontained. Two were burning at an ’emergency level’, eight blazes were in the “watch and act” category, with the rest at the “advice” level, the lowest alert rating.

* Neighboring Victoria had 36 fires, with more than 1.3 million hectares burned. Nine fires were at an emergency level.

* In the alpine region on the border of the southeastern states of Victoria and New South Wales, two fires were poised to merge and create a blaze over almost 600,000 hectares (1.5 million acres).

* Victoria emergency services minister Lisa Neville said some communities had been provided with large containers of satellite phones, baby formula, food, nappies, and torches in case they are cut off.

* Campaigners protested in Sydney and Melbourne on Friday as part of a wave of demonstrations planned in major world cities, to spotlight concerns about Australia’s climate change policies.

* Westpac estimated total bushfire losses to date at about A$5 billion ($3.4 billion), higher than the 2009 bushfires in Victoria but smaller than the Queensland floods in 2010/11. It forecast a hit of 0.2% to 0.5% on gross domestic product.

* Australia’s alpine resorts have dusted off winter snowmaking machines to blast ice-cold water onto dry ski slopes as fires threaten the Snowy Mountains region.

* The Insurance Council of Australia increased its estimate of damages claims from the fires to more than A$900 million, with claims expected to jump further.

* Health officials in New South Wales urged extra precautions to avoid heat-related illnesses.

* Australia’s wildfires have dwarfed other catastrophic blazes, with its burned terrain more than twice the extent of that ravaged this year by fires in Brazil, California and Indonesia combined.

* Of nine fires in the state of South Australia, one was categorized as an emergency.

* Climate protests were also planned on Friday in cities such as Canberra, targeting the government’s handling of the crisis and its position on climate change.

* Prime Minister Morrison said he was considering holding a wide-ranging national inquiry into the bushfires after the immediate crisis passed.

* Just shy of 2,000 homes have been destroyed in New South Wales, state authorities said, half during the past 10 days.

* The Commonwealth Bank of Australia is to donate cricketer Shane Warne’s prized “baggy green” cap to a museum after paying more than A$1 million for it at an auction for bushfire relief.

* 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.

* Ecologists at the University of Sydney have estimated 1 billion animals have been killed or injured in the bushfires, potentially destroying ecosystems.

* Morrison has pledged A$2 billion ($1.4 billion) to a newly created National Bushfire Recovery Agency.

* About 100 firefighters from the United States and Canada are helping, with another 140 expected in coming weeks.

* The fires have emitted 400 megatonnes of carbon dioxide and produced harmful pollutants, the European Union’s Copernicus monitoring program said.

* Smoke has drifted across the Pacific, affecting cities in South America, and may have reached the Antarctic, the U.N.’s World Meteorological Organization said.

(Reporting by Colin Packham, Wayne Cole, Swati Pandey and Martin Petty; Editing by Jane Wardell)

Australia calls for another mass evacuation as monster bushfires return

By Martin Petty and Colin Packham

MERIMBULA, Australia/SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australian authorities urged another mass evacuation across the heavily populated southeast on Thursday as a return of hot weather fanned huge bushfires threatening several towns and communities.

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.”

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 (25.5 million acres) 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.”

Following are some highlights of what is happening in 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.

“It takes a huge amount of rain to put out bushfires of this intensity and of this scale. That’s not forecast,” South Australia Fire Chief Jones told reporters.

* 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 Australian Bureau of Meteorology reported only 6% of typical annual rainfall last year, while daytime temperatures were more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above normal: “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.”

* New South Wales announced new funding of A$1 billion ($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.

* 1,870 homes have been destroyed on the badly hit New South Wales coast.

* Moody’s Analytics said the cost of the fires could easily surpass that of deadly 2009 Black Saturday fires that destroyed 450,000 hectares of land, which cost an estimated A$4.4 billion.

* The prime minister has pledged A$2 billion ($1.4 billion) to a newly created National Bushfire Recovery Agency.

* About 100 firefighters from the United States and Canada are helping with another 140 expected in coming weeks.

* Malaysia has approved a plan to send 65 fire and rescue personnel to help. The deployment is awaiting Australian approval.

* Ecologists at the University of Sydney have estimated 1 billion animals have been killed or injured.

* The fires have emitted 400 megatonnes of carbon dioxide and produced harmful pollutants, the EU’s Copernicus monitoring program said.

* Smoke has drifted across the Pacific, affecting cities in South America, and may have reached the Antarctic, the U.N. World Meteorological Organization said.

(Reporting by Colin Packham, Martin Petty, Sonali Paul, Paulina Duran, Swati Pandey and Praveen Menon; writing by Byron Kaye; Editing by Jane Wardell, Robert Birsel)

Smoke stalls rescues as Australia plans for next fiery onslaught

By Sonali Paul and Swati Pandey

MELBOURNE/SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australian officials took advantage of better weather on Monday to reopen roads blocked by wildfires and move some people to safety although thick smoke stalled rescue efforts and hundreds of people remained stranded.

Fires have ravaged more than 8 million hectares (19.8 million acres) of land across the country, an area nearly the size of Austria, killing 25 people, destroying thousands of building and leaving some towns without electricity and mobile coverage.

Police on Monday confirmed the death of a 71-year-old man on the south coast of New South Wales (NSW) state who was reported missing on Dec. 31.

A second day of light rain and cool winds brought some relief from heat-fueled blazes that consumed parts of two states over the weekend, but officials warned the dangerous weather was expected to return this week.

Victoria state Premier Daniel Andrews said about 400 people were airlifted on Sunday out of Mallacoota, a small, coastal holiday town.

“We had a plan to airlift another 300 out today. Sadly smoke means that is not possible,” he said.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who has come under criticism for what opponents call his government’s failure to tackle climate change, announced A$2 billion ($1.4 billion) over two years for a newly formed National Bushfire Recovery Agency.

“What we are focusing on here is the human cost and the rebuilding cost for people’s lives,” Morrison told reporters in Canberra.

He said nearly 4,000 cattle and sheep have been killed in the fires. Countless wild animals have been killed.

Dean Linton, a resident of Jindabyne in the Snowy Mountains, used the break in the immediate threat to his town to visit his wife and four children who had fled to Sydney.

He also picked up a fire-fighting pump and generator to help him protect the family home.

“There’s a lot of fuel in that national park; it would only take one lightning strike,” Linton told Reuters.

The bushfire season started earlier than normal this year following a three-year drought that has left much of the country’s bushland tinder-dry.

Following are some highlights of what is happening:

* New Zealand Defence Force said the first of three air force helicopters being sent to help departed on Monday while the other two were expected over the next two days.

* There were no emergency warnings in fire-ravaged states on Monday following the weather change. Two people were missing as 146 fires burned in New South Wales (NSW) but all were back at the “advice” level, the lowest alert rating.

* Victoria state had 39 fires with 13 “watch and act” alerts. All missing people had been accounted for, authorities said.

* About 67,000 people have left or been evacuated from fire-ravaged areas in Victoria, state Emergency Services Minister Lisa Neville said.

* Victoria set up a Bushfire Recovery Agency, with initial funding of A$50 million. The recovery is expected to cost “a lot more” than A$500 million, state premier Andrews said.

* Fire officials said light rain that has brought some relief posed problems for back-burning efforts to starve fires of fuel.

* NSW state power distributor Essential Energy said its network had suffered “significant damage”, with almost 24,000 customers without power. It might take a while to restore power to some areas because of the extent of damage and difficulty in gaining safe access, it said. Affected areas include Batemans Bay on the New South Wales south coast.

* As conditions eased, the NSW fire service said residents of Bega, Tathra, Merimbula, Eden, Pambula, Bermagui and villages to the north and south can now return though they need to monitor conditions.

* Insurers have received 5,850 bushfire-related claims in NSW, Victoria, South Australia and Queensland since the Insurance Council declared a bushfire catastrophe on Nov. 8.

* Losses are estimated at A$375 million since November, with a further A$56 million in insured property losses in September and October, the Insurance Council said. Figures do not include properties lost over the past 24 to 36 hours in areas such as the NSW Southern Highlands and south coast.

* Accommodation provider Aspen Group <APZ.AX> said it expects a A$500,000 hit to both revenue and net operating income from the fires.

* Canberra was running short of masks as smoke blanketed the capital, ACT emergency services said. The National Gallery of Australia said it was closed to protect visitors and art works. The government department responsible for coordinating disaster response also closed due to poor air quality.

* Pictures on social media showed the city of Melbourne cloaked in thick smoke.

* Actor Russell Crowe skipped Hollywood’s Golden Globes ceremony, where he won an award for playing former Fox News Chief Executive Roger Ailes in the TV series “The Loudest Voice in the Room”. Presenter Jennifer Aniston said Crowe stayed in Australia to protect his family from the fires and read remarks he had prepared in which he said the fires were “climate change based”.

* Prime Minister Morrison faced more criticism of his handling of the crisis. “Poor political judgment is one thing. Competency is another thing altogether. This is the political danger zone Scott Morrison wants to avoid,” Rupert Murdoch’s the Australian newspaper, a supporter of the government, said in an article by the newspaper’s national affairs editor.

* Forty-one U.S. firefighters are in Victoria with a further 70 from Canada and the United States expected to join on Jan. 8, the Victoria Country Fire Authority said on Twitter.

(Reporting by Sonali Paul and Swati Pandey; Additional reporting by Paulina Duran and Jonathan Barrett in Sydney and Lisa Richwine in Los Angeles; Editing by Jane Wardell, Robert Birsel)

Australia urges people to flee as fires set to surge at weekend

By Jill Gralow and Wayne Cole

BATEMANS BAY, Australia/SYDNEY (Reuters) – Authorities urged Australians on Friday to evacuate parts of the eastern states of Victoria and New South Wales to escape bushfires they fear are set to burn out of control this weekend.

In a harbinger of the searing conditions expected, a number of fires burnt out of control in South Australia as temperatures topped 40 degrees C (104 F) across much of the state and strong winds fanned flames.

Victoria declared a state of disaster across areas home to about 100,000 people, with authorities urging people to evacuate before a deterioration expected on Saturday.

“If they value their safety they must leave,” Michael Grainger of the state’s police emergency responders told reporters. “I’d suggest personal belongings are of very, very little value in these circumstances.

“These are dire circumstances, there is no doubt.”

At the summer holiday peak, authorities have advised tens of thousands of holidaymakers and residents to leave national parks and tourist areas on the south coast of New South Wales, where a week-long state of emergency has been called.

A death confirmed on Friday takes the state’s toll this week to eight. Two people have died in Victoria, and 28 are unaccounted for.

In Victoria, naval vessels Choules and Sycamore started evacuations of about a quarter of the 4,000 people stranded on a beach in the isolated town of Malla­coota.

 

With roads blocked, sea transport and some airlifts are the only way out of the stricken town, although heavy smoke prevented flights on Friday.

People in the fire-devastated New South Wales town of Cobargo angrily confronted Prime Minister Scott Morrison during a visit on Thursday, with one shouting that the leader should be “ashamed of himself” and had “left the country to burn”.

Morrison’s conservative government has long drawn criticism for not doing enough to battle climate change as a cause of Australia’s savage drought and fires.

This season’s fires have scorched more than 5.25 million hectares (13 million acres) of bushland, with 1,365 homes destroyed in New South Wales alone, including 449 this week on the south coast.

* Weather officials on Friday rated the danger from fire “very high” to “extreme” in most districts in South Australia, with a similar outlook for New South Wales and Victoria on Saturday.

 

* The head of the opposition Labor Party demanded a national response. “We haven’t, in my lifetime, had people on beaches waiting to be evacuated in life jackets…like it’s a peacetime version of something that we have seen during wartime,” Anthony Albanese told a news conference.

* Since Monday, wildfires have killed ten people in New South Wales and Victoria, with 28 still missing in the latter.

* Police and emergency officials urged tourists to leave the south coast and Snowy Mountains of New South Wales because of dangerous fire conditions, and set a Friday deadline of 10 a.m. (2300 GMT Thursday) to leave Kosciuszko National Park.

* Thousands of people had already been evacuated from East Gippsland in Victoria, one of the largest such exercises since more than 35,000 people evacuated from the northern city of Darwin in the aftermath of cyclone Tracy in 1974.

* A contingent of 39 firefighters from North America arrived in Melbourne this week, taking to almost 100 the number of U.S. and Canadians helping to tackle the crisis.

* New Zealand will send 22 more firefighters to Australia next week, adding to 157 sent since October.

* Morrison blamed a three-year drought and lack of hazard reduction for the unprecedented extent and duration of the bushfires.

* Morrison said he was inclined not to proceed with plans for a Jan. 13 visit to India because of the fires, following which he was to have visited Japan.

* United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned the world was “not winning” the race to tackle global warming.

(Reporting by Jill Gralow and Wayne Cole; Editing by Shri Navaratnam and Clarence Fernandez)

Thousands flee fires in Australia, navy helps evacuate the stranded

Thousands flee fires in Australia, navy helps evacuate the stranded
By Jill Gralow and Sonali Paul

BATEMANS BAY, Australia/MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Tens of thousands of holiday makers fled seaside towns on Australia’s east coast on Thursday as bushfires approached, and military ships and helicopters began rescuing thousands more trapped by the blazes.

Fuelled by searing temperatures and high winds, more than 200 fires are burning across the southeastern states of New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria, threatening several towns.

The NSW state government declared a state of emergency, beginning on Friday, giving authorities the power to forcibly evacuate people and take control of services.

“It is hell on earth. It is the worst anybody’s ever seen,” Michelle Roberts said by telephone from the Croajingolong Cafe she owns in Mallacoota, a southeastern coastal town where 4,000 residents and visitors have been stranded on the beach since Monday night.

Roberts hoped to get her 18-year-old daughter onto a naval ship, which arrived off the town on Thursday, in order to escape the fires and thick smoke engulfing the town.

The HMAS Choules is expected to make two or three voyages over the coming days, state authorities said.

Elsewhere, long queues formed outside supermarkets and petrol stations as residents and tourists sought supplies to either bunker down or escape the fires, emptying shelves of staples like bread and milk.

More than 50,000 people were without power and some towns had no access to drinking water.

“Everyone’s just on edge,” said Shane Flanagan, a resident of Batemans Bay on the NSW coast.

Authorities urged a mass exodus from several towns on the southeast coast, an area popular with tourists during the summer holiday season, warning that extreme heat forecast for the weekend will further stoke the fires.

“The priority today is fighting fires and evacuating, getting people to safety,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters in Sydney. “There are parts of both Victoria and New South Wales which have been completely devastated, with a loss of power and communications.”

Eight people have been killed by wildfires in NSW and Victoria since Monday and 18 are missing, officials said on Thursday.

Temperatures are forecast to soar above 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) along the south coast on Saturday, bringing the prospect of renewed firefronts to add to the around 200 current blazes.

“It is going to be a very dangerous day. It’s going to be a very difficult day,” NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said.

Following are highlights of what is happening across Australia:

* Naval officials said they would open registration forevacuation on Thursday afternoon, with the HMAS Choules able tocarry up to 1,000 people on the first trip. * “It’s 16-17 hours to the closest boat port, then we’ve gotto come back,” HMAS Choules Commander Scott Houlihan said onThursday afternoon. He said that leaving by boat was the onlyway out of the town. * Thousands of people had already been evacuated from theadjoining region of East Gippsland in Victoria, one of thelargest such operations in the country since the northern cityof Darwin evacuated over 35,000 people in the aftermath ofcyclone Tracy in 1974. * Five military helicopters were en route to the south coastto back up firefighters and bring in supplies like water anddiesel, the Australian Defence Force said. The aircraft willalso be used to evacuate injured, elderly and young people. * A contingent of 39 firefighters from North America landedin Melbourne, bringing the number of U.S. and Canadian expertswho have flown in to help deal with the crisis to almost 100. * Traffic on the main highway out of Batemans Bay on the NSWcoast was bumper-to-bumper after authorities called for the townto be evacuated. Residents of the town reported there was nofuel, power or phone service, while supermarket shelves had beenstripped bare of staples. * NSW’s Kosciuszko National Park, home to the SnowyMountains, was closed and visitors were ordered to leave due toan extreme danger of fire. * Morrison urged those waiting for help and those stuck intraffic jams “to be patient … help will arrive.” * Morrison, forced to defend his government’s limited actionon climate change, blamed a three-year drought and lack ofhazard reduction for the unprecedented extent and duration ofthis year’s bushfires. * Bushfires so far this season have razed more than 4million hectares (10 million acres) of bushland and destroyedmore than 1,000 homes, including 381 homes destroyed on thesouth coast this week.

(Reporting by Sonali Paul in Melbourne and Jill Gralow in Batemans Bay; Editing by Jane Wardell, Neil Fullick and Mike Collett-White)

Australian authorities scramble to reach victims of deadly fires as death toll rises

By Colin Packham

SYDNEY (Reuters) – A third person was confirmed dead on Wednesday in devastating bushfires that engulfed Australia’s southeast coast this week and a fourth was missing and feared dead, as navy ships rushed to provide supplies and assist with evacuations.

At least 15 people are now believed to have died, while scores of people remain missing after weeks of fires that have ripped through Australia’s east coast, much of which is tinder-dry after three years of drought.

Fanned by soaring temperatures, columns of fire and smoke blackened entire towns on Monday and Tuesday, forcing thousands of residents and holidaymakers to seek shelter on beaches. Many stood in shallow water to escape the flames.

Bushfires have destroyed more than 4 million hectares (10 million acres) and new blazes are sparked almost daily by extremely hot and windy conditions and, most recently, dry lightning strikes created by the fires themselves.

Cooler conditions on Wednesday gave the country a moment to count the cost of the fires, although there were still more than 100 blazes in New South Wales (NSW) state alone and thousands of firefighters on the ground.

The body of a man was found in a burnt car early on Wednesday on the south coast of New South Wales after emergency workers began reaching the most damaged areas, and police said the death toll will rise.

“Sadly, we can report today that police have confirmed a further three deaths as a result of the fires on the South Coast,” NSW Police Deputy Commissioner Gary Worboys told reporters in Sydney.

“Police are also at Lake Conjola now, where a house has been destroyed by fire and the occupant of that home is still unaccounted for.”

NSW police did not identify the missing man but said he was 72 years old and authorities have been unable to reach his home.

Police said early assessments have found nearly 200 homes have been destroyed, though they cautioned it was an early estimate.

In Victoria state, four people remain missing, state Premier Daniel Andrews said, after a massive blaze ripped through Gippsland – a rural region about 500 km (310 miles) east of Melbourne.

About 4,000 people in the town of Mallacoota in Victoria headed to the waterfront after the main road was cut off.

Mark Tregellas, a resident of Mallacoota who spent the night on a boat ramp, said only a late shift in the wind direction sparred lives.

“The fire just continued to grow and then the black started to descend. I couldn’t see the hand in front in my face, and it then it started to glow red and we knew the fire was coming,” Tregellas told Reuters.

“Ash started to fall from the air and then the embers started to come down. At that point, people started to bring their kids and families into the water. Thankfully, the wind changed and the fire moved away.”

Thousands of Australians remain cut off as fires force the closure of major roads, leaving many struggling to secure supplies.

In Milton, a small town on the on the NSW south coast, locals queued for hours for the few remaining items left of shelves on supermarkets.

Emma Schirmer, who evacuated from her house in Batemans Bay with her three-month child on Tuesday, said the local shop was limiting sales to six items per customer, while a power outage meant shoppers could pay only with cash.

As shops run low and firefighters struggle with exhaustion, Australia’s military, including Black Hawk helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft and naval vessels were being deployed.

Victoria’s emergency management commissioner, Andrew Crisp, said the 176-metre-long HMAS Choules may be used to evacuate many of those stranded in Mallacoota, though with a capacity of 1,000 it will be insufficient alone.

HMAS Choules is due to arrive on Thursday.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said authorities were working to restore communications with areas cut off by the fires, though she warned conditions will deteriorate again over the weekend.

“Weather conditions on Saturday will be as bad as they were” on Tuesday, Berejiklian told reporters in Sydney.

Meanwhile, Australia’s capital Canberra was blanketed in thick smoke, reaching about 20 times hazardous levels, prompting health warnings.

The smoke has also drifted to New Zealand where it has turned the daytime sky orange across the South Island.

(Reporting by Colin Packham in Sydney; Editing by Cynthia Osterman, Kim Coghill and Louise Heavens)

Thousands trapped on Australian beaches by dangerous bushfires

By Sonali Paul and Swati Pandey

MELBOURNE/SYDNEY (Reuters) – Thousands swarmed to beaches on Australia’s east coast on Tuesday to escape fierce wildfires bearing down on several seaside towns, as the government readied naval vessels and military helicopters to aid firefighting and evacuations.

Government officials called for Australian military support and assistance from U.S. and Canadian fire crews as authorities confirmed two people had died overnight, taking to 11 the total deaths in wildfires since the beginning of October.

The huge bushfires have destroyed more than 4 million hectares (10 million acres), with new blazes sparked into life almost daily by extremely hot and windy conditions in bushland left tinder dry after a three-year drought.

Fueled by searing temperatures and high winds, more than 200 fires are now burning across the southeastern states of New South Wales and Victoria, threatening several towns and snapping their power, mobile and internet links.

“This is absolutely one of the worst fire seasons we’ve seen,” Shane Fitzsimmons, commissioner of the NSW Rural Fire Service, told a briefing in Sydney.

“It’s going to be a very long, difficult dangerous night still ahead. It’s going to be another difficult day again tomorrow.”

Authorities said the main firefront was moving up the coast and warned those in its path to seek shelter close to the beach.

About 4,000 people in the town of Mallacoota in Victoria headed to the waterfront after the main road was cut off. Those who could not make it there scrambled for shelter in a gymnasium and other public buildings, as emergency sirens wailed.

Some of those trapped in the town posted images of blood-red, smoke-filled skies on social media. One beachfront photograph showed people lying shoulder-to-shoulder on the sand, some wearing gas masks.

It looked “a lot like Armageddon,” said David Jeffrey, the owner of the Wave Oasis guesthouse, adding, “It’s terrifying.”

Fisherman Steve Casement said he had lost his house in Mallacoota to the fires.

“We are stuck here now,” he told Reuters by telephone. “Everyone is pretty shocked at the moment, most of my mates are in the same position.

“Right now, I am on a trailer watching the town burn down, listening to gas bottles explode at some poor bugger’s home and seeing smoke all around me.”

Authorities said that by late afternoon the worst danger had passed.

DARKNESS IN THE AFTERNOON

Several hundreds of kilometers north, the Jervis Bay tourist spot famed for having the whitest sand beach in the world, was shrouded in darkness in the afternoon as massive fires burned, with conditions expected to worsen.

The blazes were also generating their own weather patterns, with erratic winds, dry lightning and a significantly faster spread in different direction, fire authorities said.

Ellie Morello took refuge at a beachside motel with her mother, some neighbors, friends at pets as fires approached Batemans Bay, a town on the New South Wales coast.

“My throat’s hurting from the smoke,” she told Reuters by telephone. “Burned leaves and sparks were falling on me like rain.”

Another small fire was closing in behind her as she spoke, she added.

“Helicopters are flying right overhead and dropping ocean waters a couple of hundred meters from where I am. But we have nowhere to go so we are still here.”

Morello and others said they had run out of food and were unable to replenish supplies as shops had shut.

James Findlay, a Melbourne-based broadcaster, said his parents’ home in the town was gutted after palm trees on the lawn caught fire. The couple were vacationing in New Zealand.

“There were a lot of family heirlooms in there,” he told Reuters. “A lot of priceless memories.”

The fires have been spread across four states, with fronts stretching hundreds of kilometers in some cases, affecting many towns and rural areas.

The two people who died overnight were believed to have been a father and son protecting their property near the town of Cobargo in New South Wales, police said, with a third missing, feared dead, while in Victoria, four more were unaccounted for.

Bushfires burned on the outskirts of Sydney, cloaking the harbor city in smoke ahead of a fireworks display planned for New Year’s Eve.

Authorities said the fireworks would go ahead, despite some public calls for cancellation in solidarity with fire-hit areas in the state.

“Many of us have mixed feelings about this evening, but the important thing we take out of this is that we’re a resilient state,” NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian told reporters.

(Reporting by Sonali Paul in Melbourne; additional reporting by Jonathan Barrett and Paulina Duran in Sydney; Writing by Jane Wardell; Editing by Gerry Doyle and Clarence Fernandez)