Australian authorities assess damage after day of catastrophic wildfires

A satellite infrared closeup image released by Maxar Technologies on Jan 4, 2020, shows wildfires east of Orbost, Australia.
A satellite infrared closeup image released by Maxar Technologies on Jan 4, 2020, shows wildfires east of Orbost, Australia.PHOTO: AFP/SATELLITEIMAGE ©2020 MAXARTECHNOLOGIES

MELBOURNE (BLOOMBERG) - The authorities are assessing mass property damage across south-eastern Australia on Sunday (Jan 5) after searing temperatures and strong winds fanned catastrophic wildfires on Saturday in one of the worst days of the weeks-long crisis.

Dozens of communities, from small towns on the south coast of New South Wales, to alpine villages in neighbouring Victoria state, faced extreme conditions as fires grew so large that they generated dry thunderstorms.

Thousands of people, including tourists, had heeded the advice of the authorities and evacuated a 350km stretch of coastline and also dangerous inland areas over the past few days to escape the intensifying infernos. But many remained, hosing down their properties to protect against falling embers as they anxiously waited to see if the winds would blow the fire front in their direction.

In Narooma, a seaside town of about 3,000 people, the sky was bathed in an orange glow from nearby blazes, and those who remained prepared to spend the night sleeping in their cars in parkland close to the water's edge.

Inland, hundreds of evacuees camped in the town showground in Bega and endured pitch darkness as the thick smoke blocked out the sun and ash fell from the sky.

Two people died in wildfires that have destroyed more than a third of South Australia's Kangaroo Island, devastating the national park and farmland and severely damaging the luxury Southern Ocean Lodge resort.

Penrith, on the outskirts of Sydney, reached a record 48.9 deg C on Saturday, symbolic of the dangerous weather conditions that have fanned ferocious flames and sparked new blazes further south.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced on Saturday an unprecedented level of military support to boost firefighting and recovery efforts as the national death toll from four months of infernos rose to 23.

MILDER WEATHER

Milder conditions in New South Wales are providing some relief after a "very long night for many residents", New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian told reporters in Sydney.

No one is unaccounted for in the state. The authorities may have estimates of the extent of property damage as early as Sunday afternoon, she said.

Almost 150 "volatile, dynamic" fires are still blazing across the state, Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said, after the service's second-busiest day.

 
 
 
 

"It was an awful day yesterday, a very difficult day," Mr Fitzsimmons said, adding that hot weather forecast later in the coming week may bring more fires.

Property losses will run into the "hundreds", he said. Four firefighters were injured battling blazes in New South Wales, and a 47-year-old man died from a cardiac arrest after aiding efforts.

PROPERTY DAMAGE

Communities are bracing for news of property damage and loss early on Sunday after another long night for firefighters. Southern New South Wales was ablaze into the early hours, with two emergency-level fires burning, including in the Bega Valley, near Victoria's north-eastern border.

Cooler weather and light rain across parts of eastern Victoria has provided some relief and enabled firefighters to reduce the number of emergency-level fires to four from 17.

'ATOMIC BOMB'

Officials issued new emergency warnings for bush fires that hit communities including Buldah, Cann River and Club Terrace in Victoria, saying it is too late to leave. Hours earlier, residents of Dandongadale and Nug Nug were advised to evacuate immediately.

At midnight, the fire service in New South Wales said the threat was "still not over", with seven fires at emergency warning and 11 labelled "watch and act". A statewide total fire ban remains in effect for Sunday.

"This is not a bush fire," New South Wales Transport Minister Andrew Constance told ABC radio. "It's an atomic bomb."