Australia bushfires: Tens of thousands told ‘it is too late to leave’ as blazes rage towards them

‘Catastrophic’ fire warning in place for Sydney

Samuel Osborne
Tuesday 12 November 2019 11:01
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Australian state declares emergency as wildfires continue to rage

Tens of thousands of Australians have been warned “it is too late to leave” their homes as out of control wildfires rage across a vast swathe of the country’s east coast.

Officials in New South Wales (NSW) issued a week-long state of emergency as more than half of the 78 fires across the state burned uncontrolled amid “catastrophic” conditions.

At least three people have died and more than 150 homes have been destroyed since Friday.

Firefighters in both NSW and Queensland have been given broad powers under the state of emergency to control government resources, force evacuations and close roads.

In Sydney, home to 5 million people, health authorities urged people with respiratory issues to stay indoors because the city was covered by a “hazardous” smoky haze. About 600 schools and colleges were closed across NSW.

“Complacency kills – we cannot afford for people to be complacent,” warned Shane Fitzsimmons, the state’s rural fire service commissioner.

“This will only worsen throughout the afternoon as the weather conditions continue to deteriorate, and particularly those strong winds strengthen.”

Mr Fitzsimmons said many had heeded his warning and evacuated their homes in the danger zone.

“We’ve got very tight, winding roads into a lot of these areas which is why we talked about leaving early as the safest option,” he added.

“The last thing we want to do is be managing mass evacuations in pretty difficult to access areas and running the risk of having a whole bunch of congested roadways and seeing people incinerated in their cars.”

Of the fires burning across New South Wales, 14 were rated as emergencies and burning out of control by late afternoon.

It was the largest number across the state in decades apart from on Friday, when an unprecedented 17 emergency fires blazed.

“It is too late to leave on most of these fires and sheltering is now your only option as fire approaches,” Mr Fitzsimmons said.

Mr Fitzsimmons said a firefighter battling a blaze had suffered a heart attack, although his condition was unknown.

The danger was not quite as great in Queensland, where the threat level was “severe”, two levels below the “catastrophic” conditions in NSW.

About 55 fires were burning across the northern state on Tuesday afternoon.

Blazes have been aggravated by extremely dry conditions after three years of drought in parts of NSW and Queensland, which meteorologists say has been exacerbated by climate change.

It comes as an Australian MP was criticised for saying two people who died in NSW bushfires probably voted for the Greens.

Barnaby Joyce, a backbencher for the National Party, made the remark when asked if the NSW government had provided enough resources to reduce the hazards of wildfires.

Scott Morrison, Australia’s prime minister, told ABC: “I think these [comments] are very unhelpful.”

“I’m not going to be distracted by debates happening among politicians. The last thing people in real need and urgent crisis need at the moment is hearing politicians shout at each other.”

Additional reporting by agencies

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