Updated: December 31, 2019 8:45:47 am
Thousands of people in southeast Australia sheltered on beaches or took to the water to escape wildfires threatening coastal towns as the weeks-long crisis gripping the nation escalated Tuesday.
About 4,000 holiday-makers and locals gathered on the foreshore in the town of Mallacoota in Victoria state as an out-of-control bushfire bore down on the remote community. Rural towns further north in New South Wales state are ablaze or under attack from embers, as strong winds fan the flames.
“We are surrounded by red sky, choking dust and choking smoke, and embers falling on the town,” resident Francesca Winterson said in a phone interview from Mallacoota with the Australian Broadcasting Corp.
Thousands of people evacuated Victoria’s East Gippsland region, a popular holiday spot, over the past couple of days as the fire danger grew. Those left behind posted dramatic images on social media, showing smoke turning the morning sky pitch black or choking the coastline in a haunting red haze. Four people are unaccounted for in the region and there are grave fears for their safety, state Premier Daniel Andrews told reporters.
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While a cool change lowered heatwave temperatures in Victoria overnight, it also brought strong winds that complicated firefighting efforts, dashing hopes the crisis may be easing ahead of the New Year.
As wildfires spread through heavily forested areas in southern New South Wales, people took to beaches for shelter in the towns of Bermagui and Bateman’s Bay. Buildings were ablaze in Cobargo, a community of about 800 people, where authorities fear for two people who are unaccounted for, along with another from the town of Belowra.
“We’re seeing fire impacting onto communities, people’s homes and other infrastructure,” NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons told reporters. “We’ve had reports of schools impacted. We’ve had reports of businesses and some of the small town centres being impacted by these fires. We’ve got many hours to go yet.”
The crisis gripping the world’s driest-inhabited continent has impacted all six states amid a prolonged drought, destroying millions of hectares of land and leaving 10 people dead. There are fears more lives could be lost in coming days after a 28-year-old firefighter in New South Wales died Monday when the 10-tonne truck he was in was flipped over by what Fitzsimmons described as “fire tornado.”
The emergency has placed scrutiny on Australia’s capacity to combat blazes that have spread over massive areas, pushing fire services largely manned by volunteers to their limits.
As the tourism and agriculture industries suffer, it’s also put international focus on the conservative government’s climate change policies, with environmentalists saying Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s support of the nation’s massive coal-export industry has worsened conditions.
Energy Minister Angus Taylor defended the government’s record of tackling climate change in an op-ed published in The Australian on Tuesday, saying emissions had fallen in the past year and Australia was meeting its carbon-reduction targets.
“Shrill cries that we should be ‘ashamed to be Australian’ do not ring true with the quiet Australians,” Taylor said. “That won’t stop some commentators telling us that we should feel guilty about our performance on emissions reduction. They are wrong.”
Local governments have also faced criticism. While cities such as Canberra and Parramatta cancelled fireworks celebrations to bring in the new year, Sydney’s harborside festivities that draw in tens of thousands of tourists will go ahead.
The city council rejected a petition calling for the display to be scrapped and the money to be donated to bushfire and drought relief projects, saying the event is watched by millions of people worldwide and generates A$130 million ($91 million) for the local economy.
As thousands of people gathered along the foreshore of Sydney harbour to get a prime viewing spot of the midnight fireworks, smoke drifting in from bushfires caused a polluting haze.
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