Grim New Year’s Day in Australia as bush fires continue to rage

01 January 2019

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AUSTRALIA  – Leonhardy, who moved to Australia from the United States 15 years ago, said he remained optimistic despite the loss of his home.

“You’ve got to live on. I got a job, I got to work, I got to raise a kid,” said Leonhardy, whose 13-year-son and the mother of his child were caught up in bush fires some 200km away in the small coastal community of Mallacoota, where multiple properties were destroyed.

“It’s just a place to live. But I’m still in the community. It’s a house. It’s a place where you go home and find your little centre of the universe, like a snail. Some people find it in their camper, driving down the road.”


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The bush fires have destroyed at least 200 properties in coastal communities in New South Wales and dozens more in rural pockets of eastern Victoria, devastating towns including Cobargo, Batemans Bay and Mallacoota.

Residents of Mallacoota had faced a grim New Year’s Eve, with the sky pitch black and visibility reduced to 50 metres at 9am, according to local media.

NSW Police on Wednesday confirmed three more deaths from the fires, bringing the death toll since October to 17, with authorities warning that further fatalities were likely. Thousands of residents and holidaymakers were stranded in evacuation centres as major roads remained inaccessible due to the intense fires.

Kate Shone, who lives in the small town of Swan Reach about 300km east of Melbourne, returned to her home on New Year’s Day to find it intact after evacuating to a nearby town – but is already preparing to move again due to forecasts of high temperatures and wind changes this weekend.

Firefighters struggling against the strong wind in an effort to secure nearby houses from bush fires. Photo: AFP

Firefighters struggling against the strong wind in an effort to secure nearby houses from bush fires. Photo: AFP

“There are burnt gum leaves in our yard,” said Shone. “There is major desecration of the natural bush and wildlife. My daughter couldn’t get her horse into the horse float so before leaving she cut all of its mane and tail off so it would have a better chance of survival.”

Shone said a strong community spirit was helping people through the ordeal, which she described as “terrifying”.

“People are talking to each other and communicating which is nice. We were in a shop in Sale talking about our situation when a stranger came up to us and offered for us to stay at her house,” she said, referring to a town some 100km away. “It was very touching.”

The intensity and scale of the wildfires, which fire authorities and scientists have called unprecedented, has renewed focus on Australia’s response to climate change. Although bush fires are common during the Australian summer, this season’s fires come after an unprecedented December during which the country’s all-time temperature record was shattered twice.

The crew from Fire and Rescue NSW Station 509 Wyoming recorded this video showing the moment their truck was overrun by the bushfire burning South of Nowra. The crew was forced to shelter in their truck as the fire front passed through.

— Fire and Rescue NSW (@FRNSW)

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has dismissed mounting calls to take stronger action to combat climate change, insisting the country is on track to meet its Paris commitment to reduce Australia’s emissions by 26 per cent by 2030.

In a New Year’s Eve message taking aim at opposition parties who have attacked his record on climate change, Morrison vowed against adopting “reckless targets that force up electricity prices” or abandoning “traditional industries that are especially important in regional Australia”.

The 2020 Climate Change Performance Index, released last month by a group of think tanks focused on climate change, rated Australia as having the weakest climate change policies among 57 countries assessed.

Leonhardy, who lost his house in regional Victoria, said Australia and other countries needed to look beyond “easy money” and find solutions to deal with the changing climate.

“The country is in a crisis and I don’t see the captain at the wheel,” he said. “I know the world needs energy but I truly believe something needs to change.”

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