Philippines struggles to evacuate reluctant villagers near volcano

By Karen Lema

MANILA (Reuters) – Nearly 40,000 people have been evacuated from near a Philippine volcano that could erupt violently at any moment, authorities said on Tuesday, but thousands more are refusing to leave or have already drifted back.

A cloud of ash and fountains of lava gushed for a third day from the crater of Taal, which lies in the middle of a lake about 70 km (45 miles) south of the center of the Philippines capital Manila.

Everyone living within 14 km (9 miles) of the volcano has been ordered to leave: potentially as many as 300,000 people, though disaster agency spokesman Mark Timbal said he believed the actual number who had been there was much lower.

Officially, 38,200 have now been evacuated, the agency said.

The Taal Volcano spews ash as it continues to errupt in Tagaytay City, Philippines, January 14, 2020. REUTERS/Eloisa Lopez

Local officials complained that many others were complicating the evacuation effort by staying put.

“I had to put Talisay under lockdown to prevent residents, who were already in the evacuation centers from returning,” said Gerry Natanauan, mayor of one town that is well within the danger zone of the 311 meter (1,020-foot) volcano.

“They wanted to check their homes, possessions and animals, but they’re not supposed to do that because it is very dangerous.”

Although Taal is one of the world’s smallest active volcanoes, it has a deadly history: an eruption in 1911 killed more than 1,300 people.

Several new fissures have opened, emitting plumes of steam, while dozens of tremors were felt as far as in Tagaytay city, a popular tourist destination 32 km (20 miles) away.

RISK OF DEVASTATION

If an eruption happened, nobody would be able to return to their homes because they would be devastated, said Renato Solidum, director of the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Philvocs).

“The threat is really real,” he told a media briefing.

However, many refused to heed the warnings.

In part of Balete town, which sits on the edge of the danger zone, Red Cross trucks were sent to bring out 1,000 residents, but they left with only 130 because people thought they were far enough from the volcano, local authorities said.

No casualties have been reported so far, and seismologists said there was a chance this eruption could subside, but the signs still point to an imminent explosion.

Visiting the area on Tuesday, President Rodrigo Duterte joked that the government could try a traditional way to calm the volcano down.

“You should go there and, you know, say a little prayer and offer something. Let’s go by the primitive way of doing it just like what our forefathers would do,” he was quoted as saying by the Inquirer.Net website.

Taal has erupted more than 30 times in the past five centuries, most recently in 1977. A 1754 eruption lasted for months. The Philippines lies on the “Ring of Fire”, a belt of volcanoes circling the Pacific Ocean that is also prone to earthquakes.

In Manila, government offices reopened on Tuesday after being closed on Monday because of a fine layer of ash that drifted from the volcano, but schools remained shut and many people still wore face masks.

(Editing by Matthew Tostevin and Alex Richardson)

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)

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)

Flood death toll rises to 26 in Jakarta, tens of thousands evacuated

By Agustinus Beo Da Costa and Stanley Widianto

JAKARTA (Reuters) – Tens of thousands of people were evacuated in Indonesia’s capital Jakarta on Thursday after flash floods and landslides killed up to 26 people amid some of the heaviest rain in more than 20 years, with more deluges forecast, authorities said.

The flooding, among the deadliest in years, caused chaos in parts of Southeast Asia’s biggest city with train lines blocked and power outages in some areas. Swathes of Jakarta and nearby towns were inundated after heavy rain fell on Dec. 31 and into the early hours of New Year’s Day.

Social affairs ministry data showed 26 people were killed in the flooding, up from the earlier toll of 21.

As of Thursday morning, over 62,000 people were evacuated in Jakarta alone, disaster mitigation agency spokesman Agus Wibowo said, although later in the day he told news channel Metro TV the number of evacuees were down to around 35,000 people.

Rainfall at an airport in East Jakarta measured at 377 millimeters (15 inches) early on Jan. 1, the highest daily reading during major floods since at least 1996, according to the Meteorology, Clilmatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG).

Umar Dani, 52, and his family were evacuated overnight from his home in East Jakarta on a rubber boat after water levels rose up to his neck.

“It has not flooded for so long here. We didn’t have the chance to bring anything,” he said.

“I have to live on the streets now.”

President Joko Widodo told reporters evacuation and safety measures should be prioritized and called for more coordination between city administrations and the central government.

On his Twitter page, Widodo blamed delays in flood control infrastructure projects for the flooding. He said some projects have been delayed since 2017 due to land acquisition problems.

“EXTREME WEATHER” EXPECTED

Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan said authorities deployed hundreds of pumps to suck water from residential areas across the capital, which had allowed some people to return home.

“They want to return home immediately and start cleaning up their houses as soon as they are able to enter their houses as water recedes,” Baswedan told reporters during a visit to a densely populated area in East Jakarta affected by the flood.

Residents waddled through murky water to see the governor while workers pumped water out of the area into a nearby river.

The mitigation agency said on its Twitter page that water levels have come down in a few affected areas, showing pictures of streets covered by mud and littered with debris.

Authorities however warned people to remain vigilant as “extreme weather” is expected to continue until Jan. 7.

Dwikorita Karnawati, head of the Meteorological, Climatological and Geophysics Agency (BMKG), told reporters separately that heavy rainfall may continue until mid February.

Television footage on Thursday showed rescuers in the nearby city of Tangerang evacuating residents, guiding them across a strong current by holding on to a rope.

Jakarta and its surroundings are home to more than 30 million people. More than 50 people died in one of the capital’s deadliest floods in 2007 and five years ago much of the centre of the city was inundated after canals overflowed.

The government announced last year that it is relocating the capital to East Kalimantan province on Borneo, though the planning ministry pledged that the government will invest $40 billion in modernizing Jakarta.

(Additional reporting by Jakarta bureau; Editing by Matthew Tostevin, Kim Coghill, William Maclean)

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)

Floods in Indonesia’s capital kill nine, force thousands to evacuate

JAKARTA (Reuters) – Flash floods inundated swathes of Indonesia’s capital and nearby towns on the first day of the New Year after torrential rainfall overnight, killing at least nine people and forcing thousands of people to evacuate, authorities said on Wednesday.

“As of 4 pm today, there are 19,079 displaced residents who have been evacuated at temporary shelters throughout Jakarta,” city governor Anies Baswedan told a news conference.

“The rain in Jakarta has stopped, now we are waiting for the water to recede”.

Indonesia’s disaster mitigation agency (BNPB) said at least 9 people had died in flash floods and landslides triggered by the rain in Jakarta and nearby towns.

Most of the deaths were due to hypothermia, though one was a teenager who was electrocuted by a power line, disaster mitigation agency spokesman Agus Wibobo said.

Television footage showed cars almost completely submerged and people wading through meters murky brown water in some neighborhoods of the capital.

Water levels in East and South Jakarta as well as in the satellite cities of Tangerang and Bekasi in West Java province started to quickly rise from 3 a.m. local time (2000 GMT), according to the disaster mitigation agency.

Indonesia’s state electricity utility said it had switched off the electricity in hundreds of districts in Jakarta, which is home to 30 million people.

The floods also caused the temporary closure of the runway at Jakarta’s domestic Halim airport, with flights redirected to the capital’ bigger Soekarno airport.

City authorities have in the last few years sought to improve low-lying Jakarta’s vulnerability to flooding during the rainy season.

More than 50 people died in one of the capital’s deadliest floods in 2007 and five years ago much of the center of the city was inundated after canals overflowed.

Jakarta resident Daniel, whose neighborhood had been waterlogged, told reporters of his disappointment with the city government’s efforts to mitigate the floods, which happen yearly during the rainy season.

“I only have one hope, which is to ask the current governor to fix this because it impact all the people,” he pleaded.

“Take the right action please, look at what is happening now, bring the situation back to normal.”

(Reporting by Jakarta bureau; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

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)

Australia’s ‘columns of fire’ force mass evacuation, claim ninth life

By Swati Pandey and Sonali Paul

SYDNEY/MELBOURNE (Reuters) – A volunteer firefighter was killed battling Australian bushfires on Monday as “columns” of flames generating their own dangerous weather systems bore down on a tourist region, prompting the evacuation of tens of thousands of people.

The firefighter, and two others who suffered burns, were working on a fire about 70 km (45 miles) east of Albury in New South Wales (NSW) when, it is believed, their truck rolled after being hit by strong winds, authorities said on Twitter.

The incident took the death toll from the country’s raging bushfires to nine and added pressure on authorities to reconsider New Year celebration plans for the city of Sydney.

Around 100 fires are burning across Australia, with as many as 14 “emergency” warnings in place for Victoria while fires are also threatening homes and infrastructure in South Australia and Tasmania.

Tens of thousands were evacuated as “columns of fire” fuelled by extreme heat and high winds bore down on the popular tourist region of East Gippsland in Victoria state in Australia’s southeast.

Wildfires that have plagued the country’s eastern coast for weeks flared again to danger levels in East Gippsland, an area encompassing two national parks, lakes and coastal plains that is half the size of Belgium.

By late afternoon, officials warned holiday makers to stay off the roads because of thick smoke and unpredictable, fast-moving fires, adding that it was now too late for people who had not left the region to do so.

“Leaving now would be deadly,” authorities said.

The state’s Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp said “columns of fire” were punching into the atmosphere and generating their own erratic weather systems.

“There’s lightning coming out of these columns,” Crisp told reporters. “It is unpredictable, it’s dangerous out there.”

With some firefronts stretching more than 1,000 km (620 miles) and temperatures reaching as high as 43 Celsius (109 Fahrenheit), Crisp said the danger will remain high into the evening.

Bushfires have destroyed more than 4 million hectares (10 million acres) – an area the size of Japan — across Australia in recent weeks.

At the Wallagaraugh River Retreat in Mallacoota, a coastal town in East Gippsland, owner Lynette Sykes told Reuters her property was evacuated this morning.

“We were not going to take any risks with people’s lives,” Sykes said.

A video posted on social media site Facebook showed tourist Nicholas Costanzo escaping from the Victorian bushfire on a narrow two-way road dotted with fire trucks as thick smoke blurred vision. “Please pray for us,” he said.

DRY LIGHTNING

Authorities across Australia’s south, including fire-ravaged South Australia, warned that dry lightning could spark further flare-ups overnight even as the temperature is forecast to cool.

Dry lightning occurs when a storm forms from high temperatures, but the much-needed rain evaporates before reaching the ground.

Large parts of Australia have suffered through several years of drought that has created tinder dry conditions, leaving bushland ready to ignite.

The heat wave in Australia’s south even pushed up the mercury in Tasmania, the country’s closest point to Antarctica, to 40.8 Celsius (105.4 Fahrenheit). That was the hottest ever December temperature recorded in the state capital city of Hobart, according to the Bureau of Meteorology.

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 harbour 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 cancelled.

“If regional areas have had fireworks banned, then let’s not have two classes of citizens,” tweeted New South Wales Deputy Premier John Barilaro, who represents a rural district affected by drought and fire.

An online petition calling for the Sydney spectacle to be cancelled and the money given to farmers and firefighters had attracted close to 275,000 signatures by late Monday.

(Reporting by Sonali Paul and Swati Pandey; Additional reporting by Wayne Cole and Paulina Duran; Writing by Jonathan Barrett; Editing by Richard Pullin, Jane Wardell, William Maclean)

New evacuation order for Texas city hit by explosion, chemical fire

FILE PHOTO: A process tower flies through air after exploding at the TPC Group Petrochemical Plant, after an earlier massive explosion sparked a blaze at the plant in Port Neches, Texas, U.S., November 27, 2019. REUTERS/Erwin Seba/File Photo

New evacuation order for Texas city hit by explosion, chemical fire
HOUSTON (Reuters) – Authorities have issued a second evacuation order in a week for residents of a city in the U.S. state of Texas after an explosion and fire at a petrochemical plant.

Officials issued the order late on Wednesday in Port Neches after air monitors detected elevated levels of a cancer-causing petrochemical produced at the TPC Group facility that was struck by the blaze and blast.

The fire at the 218-acre (88-hectare) plant, which was put out on Tuesday after burning for six days, had earlier prompted the evacuation of about 60,000 residents from several cities in southeast Texas.

Air monitors on Wednesday posted elevated levels of butadiene, a cancer-causing chemical. The plant makes flammable chemicals used in the production of synthetic rubber and a gasoline additive.

Schools were closed for the rest of the week, officials said. Schools in Port Neches and nearby Groves had reopened on Tuesday.

TPC Group did not immediately respond to requests for information on the butadiene emissions.

The latest evacuation, issued by the City of Port Neches and Jefferson County Judge Branick, replaced a shelter-in-place ordered earlier on Wednesday.

Elevated butadiene levels had been measured in some parts of the city and could cause dizziness, nausea, headaches, irritated eyes and throat, the statement said. They did not pose a serious health risk, or a flammability or explosion risk, it said.

A local temporary shelter for residents was re-established, the statement added.

TPC Group’s Port Neches plant suffered a fire after an explosion on Nov. 27 that injured three workers. Officials have not determined the cause of the explosion and fire, which began in a butadiene processing unit.

(Reporting by Erwin Seba and Sumita Layek; Editing by Richard Pullin and Timothy Heritage)