AUSTRALIA – More than 100 fires continue to rage across eastern Australia, dozens of them running out of control, but the nation escaped its predicted “catastrophic” fire day without further loss of life.
However, fire chiefs have warned that despite cooler conditions expected on Wednesday and Thursday, dangerous fire conditions will return late in the week.
At least 170 houses have been razed in fires across New South Wales and Queensland, but no further lives were lost on Tuesday, predicted by fire chiefs to be the most dangerous bushfire conditions the nation had ever seen.
Three people died in out-of-control bushfires at the weekend, two of them apparently trying to flee fast-moving fire fronts in cars.
In one of Australia’s largest peacetime military mobilisations, the army is expected to be deployed – including an unprecedented compulsory call-up of reserve soldiers – to assist in the firefighting and clean-up from widespread fires, some of which have burned for weeks over more than 1m hectares (2.5m acres).
On Tuesday, hundreds of schools were closed, and entire towns evacuated, as temperatures in the high 30s and gusty winds fanned dozens of existing fires across NSW and Queensland.
An extreme and persistent drought has left much of the two states tinder-dry, with forests, grasslands, and farmland vulnerable to dry lightning strikes or accidental blazes.
NSW had declared an unprecedented “catastrophic” rating for Sydney and surrounding regions for Tuesday, when firefighting conditions were at their worst. Residents in vulnerable areas were warned that fires could not be stopped in those conditions, and that houses were not designed to withstand blazes of that intensity.
“Catastrophic is off the conventional scale,” the commissioner of the NSW rural fire services, Shane Fitzsimmons, said. “It’s where people die.”
Firefighters fought 300 fires in NSW on Tuesday. The state remains in a state of emergency, and emergency warnings have been issued for 13 separate fires that are posing imminent threat to life. There are more than 70 fires burning across the state, and more than 40 of them are out of control.
There are suspicions a fire in the northern Sydney suburb of Turramurra may have been started deliberately.
In Queensland 50 fires are burning, according to state authorities.
Before Tuesday’s catastrophic conditions, as thousands of people evacuated their homes and whole towns in the path of fires were emptied, Fitzsimmons warned that those who chose to stay to defend their homes might be stranded, and that firefighters could not save everyone.
“We cannot guarantee a fire truck at every home,” Fitzsimmons said. “We cannot guarantee that someone will knock on your door and give you a warning.”
A cooling southerly change is expected to sweep north through NSW into Queensland overnight, but while that will lower temperatures, it might also swing fires back towards settlements that were previously out of the path of the fires.
Dozens of stories of loss – and of survival – have emerged. Gemma Plesman’s family lost four houses on their property at Nymboida, near Grafton, in the Northern Rivers region in NSW.
“The heartbreaking thing – everybody has built them themselves,” Plesman told the Guardian. “They’re not your typical kit house.”
“Mudbricks they made by hand. Beautiful rocks they had picked up at the creek and put into the walls. That’s all gone.”
Plesman said that, along the same stretch of road, several of her friends had lost their homes as well.
“It’s like a wasteland. It’s completely desolate. I struggle to imagine what’s happened to all the animals and birds,” she said.
Plesman said she had lived at the property on and off since she was born. She said in the past decade, the weather had become increasingly unpredictable in terms of both fires and drought.
Storms that used to occur of an evening in summer and fill up the dams had become less reliable.
“People who are struggling to survive want everyone to know this is a climate emergency,” she said.
“All my family were well set up. Sprinkler systems. Fire systems. What we’re seeing is that nothing can withstand the catastrophic nature of these fires.
“People know that living in the bush, there is fire. But they want people to know we’ve never experienced anything like this.”
The fires have exposed the acuity of the climate change debate in Australian politics. The prime minister, Scott Morrison, has refused to answer direct questions about the impact of climate change on Australia’s fire vulnerability.