Australia calls for another mass evacuation as monster bushfires return

MERIMBULA/SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australian authorities urged another mass evacuation across the country’s heavily populated southeast on Thursday as a return of hot weather fanned huge bushfires threatening several towns and communities.

Smoke and haze over mountains are seen from a No 11 Squadron P-8A Poseidon conducting damage assessment and surveillance in the bushfire-affected area near Cooma, New South Wales, Australia, January 7, 2020. SGT Murray Staff/Australian Department of Defence/Handout via REUTERS

“If you receive instructions to leave, then you must leave,” Victoria state Premier Daniel Andrews said in a televised briefing. “That is the only way to guarantee your safety. It is dangerous to be in some of these communities. We cannot guarantee your safety.”

Twenty-seven people have died, 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 of people have been made homeless and thousands more have had to evacuate repeatedly because of the volatility of the fires.

Locals in the Victoria state coastal town of Mallacoota, where thousands of people were stranded on the beachfront 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 around 1,000 locals 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.”

Further north, in the NSW coastal town of Merimbula, David Gatrell, 72, was laying out a tent in a sports ground after leaving his home about 60 kilometers (37 miles) away.

“There are four roads out of the village and three are blocked,” Gatrell told Reuters. “There’s only one way out and I don’t want to take my chances.”

Authorities have warned that the huge fires, spurred by high temperatures, strong winds and a three-year drought, will continue until there is substantial rainfall. Australia’s weather agency confirmed on Thursday there was no sign of that in coming months.

The following are some highlights of what is happening in the bushfire crisis:

* Weather officials in South Australia issued a severe weather warning for some parts of the state’s north on Thursday afternoon.

* 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.

* Parts of Kangaroo Island, a wildlife-rich tourist spot off the country’s 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. A third of the island has already been destroyed by fires.

* The Australian Bureau of Meteorology reported that the country had only 6% of its typical annual rainfall last year, while daytime temperatures across 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 state on Thursday announced new funds of A$1 billion ($686 million) to rebuild infrastructure and communities affected by the bushfire.

* Mining magnate Andrew Forrest pledged A$70 million to a bushfire recovery package, including a volunteer army of more than 1,000 people from the mining and agriculture sectors to assist in rebuilding fire-hit regions.

* Most of the fires that have devastated much of Australia’s east coast occurred in New South Wales, where 1,870 homes have been destroyed so far, authorities said.

* Prime Minister Morrison on Wednesday urged foreign tourists not to be deterred by deadly wildfires, fearing a lack of holiday-makers could hurt the economy. Some normally crowded resorts have already turned into ghost towns.

* Moody’s Analytics said the cost of the fires could easily surpass that of the deadly 2009 Black Saturday fires that destroyed 450,000 hectares of land, which cost an estimated A$4.4 billion.

* Prime Minister Morrison 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 in the country to help local services, with another 140 expected to arrive in the coming weeks.

* The Malaysian government has approved a plan to send 65 fire and rescue personnel to help efforts in Australia. The deployment is awaiting Australian government approval.

* Ecologists at the University of Sydney have estimated the number of animals killed or injured in the fires to 1 billion.

Smoke and haze over mountains are seen from a No 11 Squadron P-8A Poseidon conducting damage assessment and surveillance in the bushfire-affected area near Cooma, New South Wales, Australia, January 7, 2020. SGT Murray Staff/Australian Department of Defence/Handout via REUTERS

* The fires have already emitted 400 megatonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere 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.

($1 = 1.4567 Australian dollars)

Reporting by Sonali Paul, Paulina Duran, Colin Packham and Praveen Menon; writing by Byron Kaye; editing by Jane Wardell

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