Skies over southeastern Australia darkened with huge plumes of smoke and lightning storms yesterday after an epic heatwave, with raging wildfires claiming one life and residents warned to “leave and live.”
A cool change began sweeping the states of South Australia and Victoria as evening fell, bringing much-needed relief to millions of residents who have sweltered through up to five days of scorching temperatures in excess of 40°C.
The baking heat has triggered thousands of wildfires since shifting on Monday from the west coast, where it triggered an inferno that razed 56 homes and claimed one life.
Authorities were braced for horrific conditions as the cooling southerly change brought wind gusts of up to 120kph, fanning scores of fires across the two states and hampering aerial firebombing operations.
A towering firestorm sent more than 100 people fleeing their homes in the Grampians National Park west of Melbourne, killing a woman at Roses Gap and prompting authorities to warn of further casualties.
“These fires will be very intense and erratic this afternoon,” Victoria state’s fire commissioner Craig Lapsley told reporters. “There is a fair chance of losing property and even, if people are caught in the wrong space, life could be lost.”
In the Grampians, people started evacuating the holiday town of Halls Gap on Thursday evening after seeing a “big red glow on top of the mountain,” said Rohan McDonald, owner of the Halls Gap Lakeside Tourist Park.
“We are covered in smoke, there is a massive plume that looks like an atomic bomb has gone off over the top of the mountain,” he said.
Lapsley said the out-of-control blaze, which has already ripped through more than 21,500 hectares and was just 2km from Halls Gap late yesterday, was running so hot it was “creating its own weather.”
The convection column — a plume of hot gases, smoke, ash and other debris created by the fire — was causing lightning strikes which were starting other blazes, he added.
The smoke was so thick witnesses said it was like fog.
Lapsley said the four-day heatwave in Melbourne had brought “the same if not worse conditions” than those that had preceded the so-called Black Saturday wildfires in 2009 which had claimed 173 lives.
“Today is one of those days that certainly will be marked in the history of Victoria,” Lapsley said. “We’re only at the start of what is a significant fire period.”
There were about 57 fires raging across Victoria late yesterday, seven of which were declared emergencies, and Victoria Emergency Minister Kim Wells urged people to heed evacuation warnings.
“If the fire danger rating is severe, extreme or code red, you are risking your life and that of your families if you choose to stay behind. The message is very clear — leave and live,” he said.
In neighboring South Australia, which is in the fifth day of an extreme heatwave, two homes were razed in the Barossa winemaking region and there were three fire emergencies declared across the state, with properties under threat.
The Country Fire Service (CFS) was expecting lightning strikes as the cool change came through, further complicating firefighting efforts.
“We’re expecting a number of new starts as a result of lightning,” CFS head Greg Nettleton said.
The heatwave continued to take its toll on residents, with more than 400 heat exposure cases reported in Victoria since Tuesday and 51 heart attacks — a significant increase on normal figures.