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.
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)