SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australian officials warned soaring heat and high winds are already exceeding forecast “catastrophic” conditions on Tuesday as millions of people across the country’s east coast braced for the worst bushfires in at least a decade.
Smoke engulfs a property following the spread of bushfires in Queensland, Australia, November 11, 2019 in this picture obtained from social media. Picture taken November 11, 2019. QUEENSLAND FIRE AND EMERGENCY SERVICES (QFES)/via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES.
Several new fires broke out early on Tuesday, adding to scores of blazes that have been burning for several days across New South Wales (NSW) state. Three of the 70 blazes were given an “emergency warning level”, which means that people are in urgent danger and need to take immediate action.
For people facing two of those fires, officials warned it was too late for them to flee and urged them to find shelter.
“We are certainly starting to see an increase in fire activity,” New South Wales Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons, who is providing two-hourly updates on conditions throughout the day, told reporters in Sydney.
“The reality is conditions will simply continue to get worse and deteriorate in the coming hours and particularly into this afternoon.”
Bushfires are a common and deadly threat in Australia’s hot, dry summers, but the ferocity and early arrival of this year’s outbreak has caught many by surprise. Blazes have been spurred by extremely dry conditions after three years of drought in parts of NSW and Queensland, which many experts attribute to climate change.
Sydney, home to five million people, was among several regions rated at “catastrophic fire danger” for Tuesday, the first time it has received that designation since new fire danger ratings were introduced in 2009 following the country’s most deadly fire on record.
Residents of the harbor city, which is ringed by large, dry areas of bushland, woke up to a smoky haze on Tuesday.
Lawmakers and firefighters in NSW, said they were prepared, but warned there was only so much they could do. The worst of the weather was not expected until later in the afternoon and through the evening, with temperatures forecast to reach 37 degrees Celsius (98.6 degrees Fahrenheit), along with winds up to 70 kilometres (43 miles) per hour.
“It’s a bit of the calm before the storm at the moment,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison told 2GB radio. “Nature will throw some curveballs today, no doubt.”
Seeking to avoid deaths, firefighters have been given broad powers under a seven-day state of emergency to control government resources, force evacuations, close roads and shut down utilities. Around 600 schools and colleges were closed on Tuesday as a precaution and authorities advised anyone suffering respiratory conditions to stay indoors.
The fires also forced organizers of the Rally of Australia, which is set to decide the manufacturers’ title between Hyundai and Toyota, to reduce the route to less than a third of the original distance.
In Queensland state, the danger was not quite as great, with the threat level pegged at “severe”, two levels below the “catastrophic” conditions in NSW. Still, some 22 fires were burning across the northern state.
The current threat has sharpened attention on the polices of Australia’s conservative government to address climate change, which the country’s weather bureau has said is extending the length of the fire weather season.
Morrison, a vocal supporter of Australia’s coal industry, has declined to answer questions about whether the current fires were a result of climate change.
Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack sparked a heated debate on Monday when he accused climate activists, whom he called “woke capital city greenies”, of politicising a tragedy at the expense of people in the danger zones.
For a graphic on the State of emergency: Australia’s bushfires:
Reporting by Colin Packham; editing by Jane Wardell
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