In Depth

Australian bushfires rage out of control

Wildfires are likely to flare again this weekend, as unusually hot and dry conditions persist with rain not expected for weeks

The fierce bushfires that have devastated rural and coastal areas of South Eastern Australia, claiming nine lives since Christmas day, are projected to continue to burn - perhaps for weeks.

Thursday brought a brief reprieve from the devastation of New Year’s Eve, allowing fire crews to attempt to gain a degree of control over some fires, authorities to take stock of the damage and rescue and supply operations to get underway.

Still, the wildfires have laid waste to vast areas of southern New South Wales (NSW) and eastern Victoria - roughly 12 million acres have been burned during this summer’s fires so far - and have generated a cloud of smoke that has blanketed Sydney and Canberra, and travelled as far as New Zealand.

The death toll, say authorities, is likely to rise.

Of particular concern are high temperatures and strong winds forecast for Saturday, which will probably bring further serious blazes.

“It is likely we will see them flare up,” Ben Shepherd, a spokesman for the NSW Rural Fire Service, told The Sydney Morning Herald. “We don’t want a large population in the region.”

The Rural Fire Service posted to Twitter to say Saturday’s fires were expected to be “the same or worse than New Year’s Eve”.

“If you are planning to visit the South Coast this weekend, it is not safe. Do not be in this area on Saturday,” it warned.

This morning a navy vessel docked outside the remote coastal town of Mallacoota, bringing supplies to the roughly 4,000 people trapped on the beach there. A massive fire destroyed much of the town on Tuesday, forcing some residents and visitors to jump into the water, and rendering inland roads impassable.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said these kind of rescue and supply operations would continue throughout the day.

“There will be an effort today to drop satellite phones, food and water into isolated communities,” he said. “I wouldn’t want any community to think they’re not a priority. Each community has a different set of circumstances with how the fire has affected them.”

He cautioned, however, that the blazes were “not like other bushfires” where communities could begin to rebuild once the fire had passed through. “This is very different to that,” he said. “This will be an active fire and a very challenging and complex environment for weeks and therefore we have to do things differently.”

More than 1,000 people spent Tuesday night on the beach at Malua Bay on New South Wales’s South coast, desperate to escape the smoke and flames.

“Everyone was on the beach, just covered in ash and smoke,” said Al Baxter, a former Australian Rugby Union player, who was there. “There was a strange calmness. People were as close to the water’s edge as they could [be]. People were literally just lying on the beach trying to keep out of the smoke and ash.”

The fires have raged with such severity that they have created their own weather systems, forming “pyrocumulonimbus” clouds - which Nasa calls “the fire-breathing dragon of clouds.” These storms are relatively dry, and the violent lightning they emit can start new fires.

The severity of the bushfires has caused many to see them in the context of global climate change. “Australia is normally hot and dry in the summer, but climate change, which brings longer and more frequent periods of extreme heat, worsens these conditions and makes vegetation drier and more likely to burn,” reports The New York Times.

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Prime Minister Scott Morrison carried a message of resolve in his New Year’s Eve address to the nation.

“We have faced these disasters before and we have prevailed,” he said, “that is the spirit of Australians, that is the spirit that is on display, that is a spirit that we can celebrate as Australians.”

However, Morrison and his government have also faced criticism for what many believe is there apathy on the issue of climate change, their failure to meets emissions targets, and the degree of influence held over them by Australia’s powerful coal lobby.

Reflecting in The Guardian Australia on the scale of the disaster, David Marr, considers Morrision’s words empty. “One of the duties of a leader is to find the words in times like these. So many have died. So much has been destroyed. But how can Scott Morrison speak to the experience of the country if he can’t admit we are living through unique times? He says instead: ‘We have faced these disasters before.’”

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