Sydney (AFP) – At least 100 homes have been lost and dozens of people have been injured as an unprecedented number of bushfires tore through eastern Australia Saturday.
Firefighters had warned they were in “uncharted territory” as they struggled to contain dozens of blazes from suburban Brisbane to the far outskirts of Sydney.
“At this stage, it appears at least 100 homes have been destroyed in yesterday’s bush fires,” New South Wales fire service said in an update early Saturday.
“Three people are unaccounted for. More than 30 people have been injured.”
Around 100 blazes pockmarked the New South Wales and Queensland countryside — around eight of them remained dangerous and dozens more have yet to be contained.
About 1,200 firefighters and 70 aircraft were deployed across a roughly 1,000-kilometre (620-mile) stretch of the seaboard.
“We have never seen this many fires concurrently at emergency warning level,” New South Wales Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said Friday.
“We are in uncharted territory.”
Bushfires are common in Australia and a vast corps of firefighters had already been tackling sporadic blazes for months in the lead-up to the southern hemisphere summer.
But this is a dramatic start to what scientists predict will be a tough fire season ahead — with climate change and unfavourable weather cycles helping create a tinderbox of strong winds, low humidity and high temperatures.
While conditions eased markedly in some areas and the forecast was downgraded from “extreme” to “high” or “very high” Saturday, a total fire ban remained in place in many areas and further high winds were predicted.
Firefighters had described the conditions Friday as “difficult” and “dangerous”.
“Unfortunately, many people have called for help but due to the size and speed of the fires we couldn’t get to everyone, even by road or helicopter,” New South Wales firefighters said.
In some areas, residents were stuck and told to simply “seek shelter as it is too late to leave”.
Local radio stopped normal programming and provided instructions about how to try to survive fires if trapped at home or in a vehicle.
– ‘Volatile and dangerous’ –
Across the central coast, residents took to social media to post photos and videos of smoke-laden tangerine skies and flames engulfing storeys-tall eucalypts within sight of their homes.
Authorities said some of the fires were creating their own weather conditions — pyrocumulus clouds that enveloped entire towns.
Meanwhile, high winds flung embers and burnt debris far ahead of the fires’ front lines, depositing the dangerous detritus on the balconies and front yards of unsuspecting residents.
Firefighters moved from spot to spot trying to put out small fires caused by the falling debris.
Despite easing conditions, a prolonged drought and low humidity levels will continue to make circumstances combustible.
Earlier this month some of the same fires cloaked Sydney in hazardous smoke for days, giving the city a higher concentration of particles per million than cities like Bangkok, Jakarta or Hong Kong.
That prompted health authorities to warn Sydneysiders with respiratory problems to avoid outdoor physical activity.
Swathes of Australia have gone months without adequate rainfall, forcing farmers to truck in water at exorbitant cost, sell off livestock or leave their land to lay fallow.
On Wednesday, Australia’s government announced a package of low-cost loans worth around one billion Australian dollars (US$690 million), designed to help drought-stricken farmers struggling with the latest “big dry”.