Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 February 2020

Families battle flames or flee Australia's raging bushfires

Crisis worsened severely this week, with at least seven people killed in less than 48 hours

Australia’s bushfire crisis has displaced tens of thousands of people as large areas of the fire-affected states have been evacuated.

With more than 1,200 homes destroyed by fire and perhaps the worst yet to come, many face the daunting task of rebuilding when it is finally safe to return.

The crisis worsened severely from late Monday to early Wednesday, with at least seven people killed in less than 48 hours.

Luke Pearson, his partner and their three children live in the Lake Macquarie region, north of Sydney on the east coast of New South Wales.

The family had moved in to their house only six weeks ago but early on Wednesday were forced to flee when three of the four roads out of the area were cut off by bushfires.

Mr Pearson said the family was not prepared to wait until the fire forced them to head to the banks of Lake Macquarie, as had happened in beach towns in the neighbouring state of Victoria.

He said the family used a fire app that alerted them when a fire was within 25 kilometres, and provided other information.

“It beeped. We looked and it said three of the four roads were already down, and we could see the smoke billowing,” he told The National.

“The warning said to keep an eye out for embers and spot fires. I called a friend who is a firefighter. He said they were doing their best to keep it under control. It is near a power station.

“We packed up and left. Our middle child has asthma and we have already had a few smoky days in the past couple of months."

The family fled to stay with family members about 40km away.

“We are right on Lake Macquarie," Mr Pearson said. "If we had been trapped the plan would have been to head down to the shore, like in Victoria, but we were happy not to wait for it to get to that point.

“Now we wait. There is nothing else we can do. We will try to keep the kids occupied and we will keep an eye on things."

Elsewhere in the region, Miriam Basset and her family passed a tense night on Tuesday preparing to defend their property.

Ms Basset said the local fire service manager arrived at their place about 10.00 the night before.

“She had said the night before she wouldn’t come back because she believed the roads would be blocked and because of the dire situation she wouldn’t be able to leave her job of management with all the threats being so grave,” she told The National.

“I was feeling very anxious and had moved a few precious things to the pit [a relatively safe area with no fuel] and packed a few bags of necessities in the car.

"Then she turned up and said a lot of the previous threats had been subdued and change would depend on the weather.”

Ms Basset said on Tuesday night she “could not stop shaking” because she got up and saw “a huge red flow in the sky” in the direction of Waiwera Valley, a small farming community where her friends were fighting to defend their homes.

She said a family she knew lost their home, but thankfully no one was hurt.

“The fire ripped up the hill at such tremendous speed that the wind even ripped trees out of the ground and flung them at the house,” Ms Basset said.

On Wednesday, she said the family “are still being vigilant”.

“We live on the corner of a farm, surrounded by grass,” Ms Basset said.We are keeping an eye out for to make sure there are no spot fires. We have smoke all around us.”

She said her family had fire hoses and two generators ready, and “buckets of water around the place”. They removed as much flammable material from the house as possible.

The adrenalin pushes you along. The people fighting last night to defend their properties, I can only imagine how exhausted they are,” Ms Basset said.

She told The National that a friend saw his neighbour driving her car through flames to escape her property.

“She couldn’t get out because burning trees fell across her driveway so she had to drive through a paddock downhill, with her lights on because of the smoke," Ms Basset said. "There were flames leaping up around her car as she drove."

The woman escaped to the nearest evacuation centre.

“Being surrounded by fire, the intensity of the heat, the sheer ferocity of it, really struck us. It has been immense,” Ms Basset said.

She said that another of her neighbours had successfully defended three houses using his own firefighting equipment.

On Monday evening, volunteer firefighter Samuel McPaul was killed when what witnesses described as a “fire tornado” flipped a fire truck on southern New South Wales. Two other firefighters suffered burns after the crash.

Mr McPaul, 28, and his wife Megan were expecting their first child.

On Tuesday morning, Robert Salway, 63, and his son Patrick, 29, were found dead by a family member after they tried to defend their properly from a coming blaze.

Since then, another four people yet to be publicly identified lost their lives in the fires, and two were missing.

The fire crisis has been continuing for weeks, burning through more than four million hectares, well over one thousand homes, and claiming at least 17 lives.

Record high temperatures and months of drought have created catastrophic conditions across many regions.

In New South Wales, where the losses have been greatest over the past two months, tens of thousands of people are without power or communications after about 120 fires ripped through electricity infrastructure, phone lines and mobile towers yesterday.

In Victoria, officials warned residents and visitors in East Gippsland, a region half the size of Belgium, to leave two days ago. It was estimated there were also 30,000 people visiting the area.

In Mallacoota, East Gippsland, 4,000 people were trapped on the beach after flames encircled the town. Some went out to sea in small boats.

The town was plunged into darkness in the middle of the morning with the ferocity of the fire and density of smoke.

On Wednesday, helicopters were used to fly firefighters in and out for shift changes after battling around the clock to save the town, and police boats brought in drinking water and other supplies.

A Royal Navy ship was expected to help on Thursday.

It is estimated that 100,000 people have been told to evacuate the outskirts of the state’s capital, Melbourne.

South Australia, which had no fewer than 120 fires burning on Monday, continues to face a crisis as extremely hot and dry weather offers firefighters no respite at all this week.

Another heatwave is forecast for this week in New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory.

Updated: January 2, 2020 02:03 AM

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