Australia — Australian firefighters warned Sunday that gale-force winds forecast for this week threaten to fan wildfires that have killed 210 people in the country’s scorched southeast.
Gusts of up to 150 kilometres (93 miles) an hour forecast for Tuesday may send fires racing beyond containment lines, Victoria state’s Emergency Services Commissioner Bruce Esplin said.
He also warned the winds could bring down trees and powerlines already damaged by the blazes and advised residents to leave early unless they were committed to staying in their homes and fighting the flames.
Asplin said conditions had the potential spark firestorms as devastating as “Black Saturday” on February 7 this year, Australia’s worst fire disaster, or “Ash Wednesday” in 1983, when 75 people died.
“The weather forecast is for conditions that could approximate Black Saturday or Ash Wednesday,” Esplin said.
“There is no room for complacency and there is a very strong need for everybody to be prepared to play their part.”
The winds are expected to begin on Monday night then peak on Tuesday.
Authorities said schools may be closed on Tuesday and police said officers still sifting ashes in the disaster zone for more bodies would suspend their activities on the day because conditions would be too dangerous.
More than 3,000 firefighters are battling four major blazes in Victoria state, carving out containment lines up to 60 metres (200 feet) wide to create a fuel-free buffer zone around the flames.
Country Fire Authority chief Russell Rees said additional resources would be on the ground from Monday night.
“History shows that fires that start in the night cause the most confusion and the most difficulty,” he said.
“To wake up in the morning to have fire around and on your doorstep is a terrifying thing.”
The warning comes as official figures show the Victorian capital Melbourne experienced its driest start to the year since records began in the 1850s, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported.
It said the weather bureau reported Australia’s second largest city had just one millimetre (0.04 inches) of rain in January and three millimetres in February.
Authorities warn wildfires will remain a threat until April unless rain falls in the parched region.
The death toll has remained at 210 since last Wednesday, but is expected to climb further once formal identification procedures are completed, with the army saying on Saturday that 37 people were still missing.