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Australia fires intensify: 'It's going to be a blast furnace'

The blazes have strained the country's firefighting resources, and the fire season, though still young, already ranks as among the worst in Australia's recorded history

By Livia Albeck-Ripka, Jamie Tarabay and Richard Pérez-Peña
Published: Jan 4, 2020

Australia fires intensify: 'It's going to be a blast furnace'A kangaroo rushes past a burning house in Conjola, Australia, on Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2019. The country’s east coast is dotted with apocalyptic scenes on the last day of the warmest decade on record in Australia. (Matthew Abbott/The New York Times)

INVERLOCH, Australia — They fled from looming firestorms that threatened to cut off their escape, only to join a slog alongside the masses of others who crowded the roads. Thousands more waited for rescue by sea.

Across the scorched southeast, frightened Australians — taking a few cherished things, abandoning their homes and vacation rentals, and braving smoke that discolored the skies — struggled Thursday to evacuate as wildfires turned the countryside into charcoal wasteland.

And from government officials came a disheartening warning: This weekend will be one of the worst periods yet in Australia’s catastrophic fire season.

“It’s going to be a blast furnace,” Andrew Constance, transport minister of New South Wales, told The Sydney Morning Herald.

The blazes have strained the country’s firefighting resources, and the fire season, though still young, already ranks as among the worst in Australia’s recorded history.

The state of New South Wales declared an emergency in its southeastern region Thursday, calling on residents and vacationers to evacuate. Constance said the relocation was the largest in the region’s history.

To the south, the state of Victoria declared a disaster Thursday, allowing it to authorize the evacuation of areas along its eastern coast.

Using any means they could find, authorities were warning people to evacuate. But with communication in some areas spotty to nonexistent, it was not clear that everyone would get the message.

In just the past week, at least nine people have died, and many more are unaccounted for. In all, at least 18 people have died in this fire season.

The blazes have consumed more than 1,000 houses, killed countless animals and ravaged a Pacific coast region of farms, bush, eucalyptus forests, mountains, lakes and vacation spots. About 15 million acres have been blackened over the past four months, and more than 100 wildfires are still burning.

Australia fires intensify: 'It's going to be a blast furnace'Firefighters battle a blaze in Lake Conjola, Australia, on Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2019. This fire season has been one of the worst in Australia’s history, with at least 15 people killed, hundreds of homes destroyed and millions of acres burned. (Matthew Abbott/The New York Times)

With the Southern Hemisphere summer barely underway and the country already reeling from record-breaking heat, no one expects relief any time soon. No rain is in the forecast.

“We’re still talking four to six weeks at best before we start to see a meaningful reprieve in the weather,” Shane Fitzsimmons, rural fire commissioner for the state of New South Wales, told reporters.

In Mallacoota, a coastal town in Victoria state, the Australian Navy on Friday began ferrying to safety some of the 4,000 people trapped there when flames cut off all escape routes on land.

People camped on the beach and slept in small boats, they said, trying to shield themselves from flying embers as the inferno moved toward them. The heavy smoke meant only a few people with medical problems could be evacuated by helicopter.

Among those on the beach was Justin Brady, a musician who just moved from Melbourne to Mallacoota, about 250 miles to the east. He managed to salvage a fiddle, a mandolin and some harmonicas before abandoning the home he built and its contents to the flames.

“It’s been pretty heavy,” he said.

Others nearby were not nearly so measured, venting their anger at the national and state governments, which they said had not taken the crisis seriously enough.

Michael Harkin, who lives in Sydney and was vacationing in Mallacoota, complained of “incompetent governance” that is “not keeping us safe at all.”

“I’m looking forward to getting somewhere that isn’t here,” he said.

The emergency services minister of New South Wales, David Elliott, drew withering criticism on social media after he left the country Tuesday for a vacation in Britain and France. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that he said he would return “if the bush fire situation should demand it.”

Elliott’s departure came just weeks after Prime Minister Scott Morrison was widely ridiculed for taking a vacation in Hawaii during the crisis. He cut his trip short.

The Navy ship that arrived at Mallacoota, the HMAS Choules, delivered food, water and medical supplies, and was expected to leave with hundreds of evacuees. Once it is far enough from shore, the sickest people can be taken away by helicopter.

The Choules will return for more people, officials said, but it will be a slow process; the trip to a safe port in the sprawling country is expected to take 17 hours. Many of the people aboard the cramped ship will have to spend most of that time sitting on the open deck.

The evacuation orders have been easier to make than to carry out.

Two-lane roads are carrying highway-level traffic, and some roads have been closed by the fires or blocked by downed trees and power lines. Long lines of cars snake around gas stations, tanks run dry, and drives that would normally take two hours last half a day or more.

The state premier of Victoria, Daniel Andrews, said 17 people were still missing as fires swept alpine resorts and the normally bucolic Gippsland area.

Thousands of people have gone days without electricity or phone service. With cell towers destroyed but landlines still working, long lines formed at pay phones, creating scenes from another era. Officials advised people to boil water before using it, after power failures knocked out local water treatment facilities.

Stores have run short of essentials like diapers, baby formula, bread and bottled water. With lodgings full, many people fleeing the fires have been forced to sleep in their cars.

Businesses with generators have continued to operate, but some have run out of fuel, and others are near that point.

Craig Scott, manager of a supermarket in Ulladulla, a beach town about 100 miles south of Sydney, told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. that he planned to keep the generator there running by siphoning fuel from the tanks of fishing boats. He said the store had just gotten the generator a few months ago, when no one imagined how desperately it would be needed.

So vast and intense are the fires that they can create their own weather, generating winds as they suck in fresh air at ground level, and sparking lightning in the immense ash clouds that rise from them.

Canberra, Australia’s capital, recorded the worst air quality ever measured Thursday; the largest city, Sydney, has been suffering through intense smoke for weeks; and ash from the blazes has darkened skies and coated glaciers in New Zealand, more than 1,000 miles away.

The fires have set off anger at Morrison, in particular. He has played down the role of global warming, opposed measures to combat climate change and, at least initially, rejected additional funding for firefighters.

On Thursday, Morrison was heckled as he visited Cobargo, a New South Wales village where fires have killed two men and destroyed the main street. When he extended his hand to one woman, she said she would shake it only if he increased spending on firefighting.

“You won’t be getting any votes down here, buddy,” one man yelled. “You’re out, son.”

As Morrison left hurriedly, the man taunted him about returning to Kirribilli House, the prime minister’s elegant official residence in Sydney, with spectacular views of the harbor and the city.

“I don’t see Kirribilli burning,” the man yelled.

Morrison said he understood residents’ frustration.

“I’m not surprised people are feeling very raw at the moment,” he told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. “That’s why I came today, to be here, to see it for myself, to offer what comfort I could.

“I understand the very strong feelings people have — they’ve lost everything,” he said, adding that there were still “some very dangerous days ahead.”

©2019 New York Times News Service