‘Not safe to move’: Wildfire threats intensify in Australia

A father and son who were battling flames for two days on Kangaroo Island. off the coast of South Australia, are the latest victims of the worst wildfire season in Australian history, and the path of destruction widened in at least three states Saturday due to strong winds and high temperatures.

The death toll in the wildfire crisis is now up to 23 people, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said after calling up about 3,000 reservists to battle the escalating fires, which are expected to be particularly fierce throughout the weekend.

“We are facing another extremely difficult next 24 hours,” Morrison said at a televised news conference. “In recent times, particularly over the course of the balance of this week, we have seen this disaster escalate to an entirely new level.”

Dick Lang, a 78-year-old outback safari operator, and his 43-year-old son, Clayton, were identified by Australian authorities after their bodies were found Saturday on a highway on Kangaroo Island. Their family said their losses left them “heartbroken and reeling from this double tragedy.”

Lang, known as “Desert Dick,” was an acclaimed pilot and led tours for travellers throughout Australia and other countries. “He loved the bush, he loved adventure and he loved Kangaroo Island,” his family said.

Clayton Lang, one of Dick’s four sons, was a renowned plastic surgeon who specialized in hand surgery. One of the men was found inside a car after they were trapped by fire on the highway.

Soaring temperatures in Sydney suburbs

The fire danger increased as temperatures rose Saturday to record levels across Australia, surpassing 43 C in Canberra, the capital, and reaching a record-high 48.9 C in Penrith, in Sydney’s western suburbs.

Video and images shared on social media showed blood red skies taking over Mallacoota, a coastal town in Victoria where as many as 4,000 residents and tourists were forced to shelter on beaches as the navy tried to evacuate as many people as possible.

By Saturday evening, 3,600 firefighters were battling blazes across New South Wales state. Power was lost in some areas as fires downed transmissions lines, and residents were warned that the worst may be yet to come.

“We are now in a position where we are saying to people it’s not safe to move, it’s not safe to leave these areas,” state Premier Gladys Berejiklian told reporters. “We are in for a long night and I make no bones about that. We are still yet to hit the worst of it.”

Morrison said the governor general had signed off on the calling up of reserves “to search and bring every possible capability to bear by deploying army brigades to fire-affected communities.”

Calling up reservists for 1st time to join fight

Defence Minister Linda Reynolds said it was the first time that reservists had been called up “in this way in living memory and, in fact, I believe for the first time in our nation’s history.”

The deadly wildfires, which have been raging since September, have already burned about five million hectares (12.35 million acres) of land and destroyed more than 1,500 homes.

The early and devastating start to Australia’s summer wildfires has also been catastrophic for the country’s wildlife, likely killing nearly 500 million birds, reptiles and mammals in New South Wales alone, Sydney University ecologist Chris Dickman told the Sydney Morning Herald. Frogs, bats and insects are excluded from his estimate, making the toll on animals much greater.


Here is a view of fire damage on Friday in the town of Sarsfield, about 200 kilometres west of the small coastal town of Mallacoota, where on Friday people began fleeing the danger, aboard the ship HMAS Choules. (Darrian Traynor/Getty Images)

Experts say climate change has exacerbated the unprecedented wildfires around the world. Morrison has been criticized for his repeated refusal to say climate change is intensifying the fires, instead deeming them a natural disaster.

Some residents yelled at the prime minister earlier in the week during a visit to New South Wales, where people were upset with the lack of fire equipment their towns had. After fielding criticism for taking a family vacation in Hawaii as the wildfire crisis unfolded in December, Morrison announced he was postponing visits to India and Japan that were scheduled for later this month.

The government has committed 20 million Australian dollars ($ 18 million Cdn) to lease four fire-fighting aircraft for the duration of the crisis, and the helicopter-equipped HMAS Adelaide was deployed to assist evacuations from fire-ravaged areas.

The deadly fire on Kangaroo Island broke containment lines Friday and was described as “virtually unstoppable” as it destroyed buildings and burned through more than 14,000 hectares of Flinders Chase National Park. While the warning level for the fire was reduced Saturday, the Country Fire Service said it was still a risk to lives and property.

New South Wales Rural Fire Service Deputy Commissioner Rob Rogers warned that the fires could move “frighteningly quick.” Embers carried by the wind had the potential to spark new fires or enlarge existing blazes.

Spread from national park to suburbs feared

Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fizsimmons said the 264,000-hectare Green Wattle Creek fire in a national park west of Sydney could spread into Sydney’s western suburbs. He said crews have been doing “extraordinary work” by setting controlled fires and using aircraft and machinery to try to keep the flames away.

More than 130 fires were burning in New South Wales, with at least half of them out of control.

Firefighters were battling a total of 53 fires across Victoria state, and conditions were expected to worsen with a southerly wind change. About 900,000 hectares (2.2 million acres) of bushland has already been burned through.


Here, flames burn through bush on Saturday in Lake Tabourie, New South Wales. A state of emergency has been declared across the southeastern state with dangerous fire conditions in the forecast. (Brett Hemmings/Getty Images)

In a rare piece of good news, the number of people listed as missing or unaccounted for in Victoria was reduced from 28 to six.

“We still have those dynamic and dangerous conditions — the low humidity, the strong winds and, what underpins that, the state is tinder dry,” Victoria Emergency Services Commissioner Andrew Crisp said.

Thousands have already fled fire-threatened areas in Victoria, and local police reported heavy traffic flows on major roads.

“If you might be thinking about whether you get out on a particular road close to you, well there’s every chance that a fire could hit that particular road and you can’t get out,” Victoria Emergency Services Commissioner Andrew Crisp said.

Queen sends thoughts and prayers 

On Saturday, Queen Elizabeth expressed her sorrow over the devastating bushfires, sending her thoughts and prayers to all Australians, including emergency services.

The Queen, who is Australia’s head of state, sent a message of condolence as the fires continued to rage dangerously out of control.

“I have been deeply saddened to hear of the continued bushfires and their devastating impact across many parts of Australia,” the 93-year-old monarch said in a statement.

“My thanks go out to the emergency services, and those who put their own lives in danger to help communities in need. Prince Philip and I send our thoughts and prayers to all Australians at this difficult time.”

The message of condolence was sent to the Governor General of Australia, her representative in the country, and to the governors of states affected by the fires, including New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria. It was also addressed to “all Australians.”

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