Tens of thousands of people were evacuated on Monday as “columns of fire” fueled by extreme heat and high winds bore down on a popular tourist region in Australia’s southeast.
Wildfires that have plagued the country’s eastern coast for weeks flared again to danger levels in Victoria state’s East Gippsland, an area encompassing two national parks, lakes and coastal plains that is half the size of Belgium.
By late afternoon, officials warned holiday makers to stay off the roads because of thick smoke and unpredictable, fast-moving fires, adding that it was now too late for people who had not left the region to do so.
The state’s Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp said “columns of fire” were punching into the atmosphere and generating their own dangerous weather systems.
“There’s lightning coming out of these columns. It is unpredictable, it’s dangerous out there,’’ Crisp said.
With some firefronts stretching more than 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) and temperatures reaching as high as 43 Celsius (109 Fahrenheit), Crisp said the danger would remain high into the evening.
Bushfires have destroyed more than 4 million hectares (9.9 million acres) across Australia in recent weeks – an area the size of Japan.
Eight deaths have been linked to the blazes.
At the Shady Gully Caravan Park in Mallacoota, a coastal town in East Gippsland, a manager who gave only his first name, Chris, said that “people are evacuating and they have evacuated all day. They are leaving.”
At the Mallacoota Beachcomber Caravan Park, a woman who identified herself only as Debbie said some people had chosen to stay to help fight the fires.
“The weather is very still, almost like a smoke haze and its very very hot. No winds,” she said.
Around 100 fires are burning across Australia, the bulk of them in the southeast, across the states of Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia.
But blazes are also threatening lives and homes on the other side of the country – fires in Western Australia, thousands of kilometers away from the country’s east, broke containment lines north of the port city of Albany on Sunday.
The heat wave in Australia’s south even pushed up the mercury in Tasmania, the country’s closest point to Antarctica, to 40.8 Celsius (105.4°F).
That was the hottest ever December temperature recorded in the state capital city of Hobart, according to the Bureau of Meteorology.
Authorities across Australia’s south, including fire-ravaged South Australia, warned on Monday that dry lightning could spark further flare-ups overnight even as the temperature is forecast to cool.
Dry lightning occurs when a storm forms from high temperatures, but the much-needed rain evaporates before reaching the ground.
Large parts of Australia have suffered through several years of drought that has created tinder dry conditions, leaving bushland ready to ignite.
In New South Wales State, temperatures are forecast to spike on New Year’s Eve, when hundreds of thousands of people are expected to gather around the harbor in Sydney to watch the city’s world-famous firework celebrations.
Similarly, An Australian volunteer firefighter died on Monday and two others suffered burns after their truck rolled over when it was hit by extreme winds amid raging bush fires.
The firefighters were working on a fire about 70 km (45 miles) east of Albury in New South Wales, fire authorities tweeted.
As many as 11 emergency fire warnings were in place in the state of Victoria, where conditions were expected to become extreme overnight, while fires were also threatening South Australia and Tasmania. (Reuters/NAN)