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MELBOURNE, Jan 4 — Bushfires burned dangerously out of control on Australia’s east coast on Saturday, fuelled by high temperatures and strong winds that had firefighters battling to save lives and property, and authorities said the worst of conditions was yet to come.
By early evening, Victoria had 16 fires rated at emergency or evacuate warning levels and New South Wales had 12 rated emergency, with more than 100 others burning across the states. New fires had started, and others had broken containment lines.
“We are in for a long night and we are still to hit the worst of it,” NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said at an afternoon briefing. “It’s a very volatile situation.”
The Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) said conditions were deteriorating rapidly as a gusty southerly change pushed up the coast and smoke plumes from the fires triggered storms.
Authorities are worried the fires could turn out to be worse than New Year’s Eve, when they burnt massive tracts of bushland and forced thousands of residents and summer holidaymakers to seek refuge on beaches.
In Victoria, Premier Daniel Andrews said while conditions were difficult, the job of firefighters had been made easier by tens of thousands of people following advice to evacuate.
It may be Sunday or later before damage assessments can be made. Prime Minister Scott Morrison put the national death toll from the current fire season, which began in September, at 23. Twelve of those are from this week’s fires alone.
As the NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) updated its emergency warnings on the fires, it repeatedly delivered the same blunt advice to those who had not evacuated at-risk areas: “It is too late to leave. Seek shelter as the fire approaches.”
Residents used social media to post photos of the sky turning black and red from the smoke and glare of the fires, including in the Victorian town of Mallacoota, where around 1,000 people were evacuated by sea on Friday.
The federal government announced an unprecedented call up of army reservists to support firefighters as well other resources including a third navy ship equipped for disaster and humanitarian relief.
Andy Gillham, the incident controller in the Victorian town of Bairnsdale, said the area had avoided the worst of the fires on Saturday but stressed this was an exceptional fire season. — Reuters
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