Wildfires Threaten Southeast Australia, Mass Evacuations Urged

Tens of thousands of Holiday-makers and residents are being urged to evacuate a popular tourist spot in southeast Australia as a heatwave sweeping through the region threatens to escalate wildfires.

In a televised appeal Sunday, the Victoria state Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp called on about 30,000 people vacationing around Lakes Entrance in the East Gippsland region to leave immediately. “We want you to get out now,” he said. “It is important that you now think very very seriously about leaving.”

The area, about 4 hours drive east of the state capital Melbourne, is already threatened by 3 major blazes, while soaring temperatures, wind and lightning could see more fires break out Monday and close the main highway in and out of the region.

It is the latest development in the wildfire crisis that’s left at least nine people dead in Australia since blazes broke out months ago during the southern hemisphere winter amid a prolonged drought gripping parts of the country. The fires, which are affecting several states, have triggered an emotive debate about the impact of global warming in the world’s driest-inhabited continent.

With a state of emergency declared in New South Wales (NSW) state, and toxic smoke has shrouded Sydney for several days this month.

A severe heatwave is spreading across the country, with temperatures forecast to reach 41Celsius (105.8Fahrenheit) Monday in Lakes Entrance, a coastal town with pristine beaches and a large system of inland waterways. Parts of western Sydney are expected to reach 44 Celsius by Tuesday, according to the Bureau of Meteorology.

Sydney’s New Year’s Eve fireworks celebrations, which draw tens of thousands of tourists to the city for the harborside spectacle, will go ahead regardless.

The city council has rejected a petition calling for the display to be scrapped and the money to be donated to bushfire and drought relief projects, saying the event is watched by millions of people worldwide and generates AUD130-M ($91-M) for the local economy.

Authorities will liaise with the fire service to ensure the event can be held safely.

NSW has borne the brunt of the fires, which have burnt out more than 6-M acres of forest and bush land, and destroyed the habitat of native animals.

About 2,300 firefighters in the state are trying to contain 95 blazes before weather conditions deteriorate. Morrison announced Sunday that many members of the largely volunteer Rural Fire Service in New South Wales would be eligible for compensation of up to AUD6,000 for their efforts, if they are self-employed, work for small or medium businesses and have spent 10 days in the field.

Stay tuned…