Australian firefighters yesterday warned they were in “uncharted territory” as they struggled to contain more than a dozen out-of-control bushfires across the nation’s east.
About 100 blazes pockmarked the New South Wales and Queensland countryside, with 17 remaining dangerous and uncontained late yesterday.
“We have never seen this many fires concurrently at emergency warning level,” New South Wales Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons told public broadcaster ABC. “We are in uncharted territory.”
Bushfires are common in Australia and firefighters had already been tackling sporadic blazes for months in the lead up to the southern hemisphere summer.
However, this is a dramatic start to what scientists predict would be a tough fire season ahead — with climate change and unfavorable weather cycles helping create a tinderbox of strong winds, low humidity and high temperatures.
So far, there have been no reports of fatalities, although there were reports of buildings set alight and people trapped in their homes.
The blazes were spread along a roughly 1,000km stretch of the seaboard, leaving emergency services struggling to cope, even with the help of about 70 aircraft.
“Today has been a difficult and dangerous day. Unfortunately, many people have called for help, but due to the size and speed of the fires, we couldn’t get to everyone, even by road or helicopter,” New South Wales firefighters said.
State authorities said fires had breached containment lines and forced the closure of the Pacific Highway linking Sydney and Brisbane in two places, although one area has since reopened.
On Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, police ordered the total evacuation of Tewantin, a suburb of 4,565 people, before scaling back the order.
In some areas, residents were stuck and told to simply “seek shelter as it is too late to leave.”
Local radio stopped normal programming and provided instructions about how to try to survive fires if trapped at home or in a vehicle.
Authorities said some of the fires were creating their own weather conditions — pyrocumulus clouds that enveloped entire towns.
Meanwhile, high winds flung embers and burnt debris far ahead of the fires’ front lines, depositing the dangerous detritus on the balconies and front yards of unsuspecting residents.
Firefighters moved from spot to spot trying to put out small fires caused by the falling debris.
Strong winds and high temperatures are expected to ease into weekend, offering the chance of some respite.
However, a prolonged drought and low humidity levels will continue to make circumstances combustible.
“It’s a very dynamic, volatile and dangerous set of circumstances,” Fitzsimmons said.
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