Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 17 January 2020

Australia's fire-ravaged regions brace for weekend heatwave

Residents in danger zones are urged to leave early amid increasing danger

Australia is bracing for a weekend heatwave that threatens to raise the intensity of the already out-of-control bushfires, with officials issuing fresh evacuation warnings on Wednesday.

Residents in the east of the state of Victoria were urged to leave before the danger increases on Friday, while in South Australia state authorities began relocating people from a small community on Kangaroo Island.

"Leave and leave early. Everything we've done in terms of … issuing warnings has been about saving lives and today I'm asking people to continue to heed the messages that we are giving," Victoria police minister Lisa Neville said.

More than eight million hectares have burnt and 2,000 homes have been destroyed. The confirmation of the death of a fourth firefighter brought the death toll from the fires to 26.

Mat Kavanagh, a Victoria state firefighter, 43, was killed in a vehicle crash while he was working to extinguish unattended campfires, but it took police a few days to investigate the incident and determine if it was a result of the bushfires.

"He was such a well-loved guy,” Chris Hardman, Forest Fire Management Victoria's chief fire officer said.

“For those people who knew Mat, it’s going to take a long time. I can’t imagine what that family is going through and what Mat’s colleagues are going through. It’s just such a very sad day.”

On Wednesday, the University of Sydney doubled earlier estimates for the number of animals killed in the fires, saying the figure, which includes mammals, birds and reptiles but not frogs, insects or invertebrates, was one billion.

Cooler weather and rain provided some respite this week, but also raised concerns that lightning could spark more fires before hot and windy conditions return.

About 2,300 firefighters in the state of New South Wales were making the most of relatively benign conditions by frantically consolidating containment lines around more than 110 blazes and patrolling for lightning strikes, state Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said.

Doug Schutz, right, the Tomerong Rural Fire Service Captain, oversees a controlled burn near Tomerong, Australia, Wednesday, January 8, 2020. AP Photo
Doug Schutz, right, the Tomerong Rural Fire Service Captain, oversees a controlled burn near Tomerong, Australia, Wednesday, January 8, 2020. AP Photo

“Unfortunately with lightning strikes, it's not always the next day they pop up,” Mr Fitzsimmons told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

“They can smoulder around in trees and in root systems for a couple of days and pop up under drier, hotter conditions, so we are very mindful of that as we head into Friday.”

Several firefighters unions urged the federal government on Wednesday to order a royal commission, the nation's highest form of investigation, into the wildfires. Environmental group Greenpeace Australia said any such investigation must analyse the role of climate change.

“This unprecedented and catastrophic fire season still has months to go and the next one will not be far behind. We need to start planning now so the chaotic scenes witnessed this summer do not become an annual occurrence," Greenpeace Australia Pacific’s Head of Campaigns, Jamie Hanson, said.

“But this inquiry needs to go beyond the symptoms of the bushfire crisis and look at the largest underlying cause of the conditions that have exacerbated these fires, which is burning coal.”

Australia is the world’s largest exporter of coal and liquefied natural gas, but Prime Minister Scott Morrison rejected calls last month to downsize Australia’s lucrative coal industry.

The bushfire disaster, which is likely to continue throughout the Southern Hemisphere summer, has galvanised calls for more global action on climate change.

Australia experienced its driest and hottest year on record in 2019, with its highest average maximum temperature of 41.9°C recorded in mid-December. Each time the mercury has risen in recent months, the risk of deadly blazes has soared.

Authorities warn the disaster still has weeks or months to run.

Prince Charles, who is next in line to become the British monarch and Australia's head of state, said in a video message from Scotland that he and his wife, Camilla, were in despair watching the infernos burn across Australia.

Updated: January 8, 2020 04:05 PM

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