Australians urged to ‘leave early’ in face of new bush fire threat

Country Fire Authority strike teams performing controlled burning in Australia on Jan 7, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

SYDNEY (REUTERS, BLOOMBERG, AFP) - Australian authorities warned people on Wednesday (Jan 8) to prepare for another wave of evacuations as temperatures in the country's south-east began to rise after a days-long cool spell, bringing the danger of revitalised blazes.

Firefighters have used the break from extreme heat and high winds to strengthen containment lines around several major fires, as the military continued efforts to provide supplies to thousands of people who have been left homeless.

Complicating the recovery effort, the authorities have forecast another temperature spike as soon as Friday, with little rain, meaning a return to hazardous conditions.

"We are going to see some widespread severe fire danger, we are asking people to be ready," New South Wales (NSW) state Rural Fire Services Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons told Sky News.

Residents of Victoria state's fire-ravaged east were urged to leave before another heatwave raises the bush fire danger Friday, while in South Australia state authorities began relocating people from a small community on Kangaroo Island.

"Leave, and leave early," Victoria police minister Lisa Neville urged those in the danger zone. "Everything we've done in terms of... issuing warnings has been about saving lives, and today I'm asking people to continue to heed the messages that we are giving."

Still, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison urged foreign tourists not to be deterred by deadly wildfires that have razed large swathes of the country and sent smoke palls as far as South America.

Mr Morrison made the plea for international visitor support on Wednesday as he visited Kangaroo Island, a usually wildlife-rich tourist drawcard off Australia's south coast that has been hit twice in recent weeks by fierce fires.

"Australia is open, Australia is still a wonderful place to come and bring your family and enjoy your holidays," Mr Morrison told reporters after meeting local tourism operators and farmers.

"Even here on Kangaroo Island, where a third of the island has obviously been decimated, two-thirds of it is open and ready for business," he said. "It's important to keep the local economies vibrant at these times."

Shortly after Mr Morrison spoke, officials confirmed another firefighter had died in a vehicle crash last Friday while on duty, bringing the national death toll to 26.

The cost of the fires is mounting daily.

More than 10.3 million hectares of land - an area the size of South Korea - have been razed by bush fires that have killed 24 people in recent weeks.

As Australians awoke on Wednesday, there were almost 120 blazes burning in NSW alone, with about 50 not contained.

More than 1,500 homes have been destroyed in NSW this fire season and the tally is rising daily as the fires continue to burn and the authorities assess damage.

Ecologists at the University of Sydney on Wednesday doubled their estimate of the number of animals killed or injured in the fires to one billion, as the UN World Meteorological Organisation confirmed that smoke from the blazes has drifted as far as South America.

The three major cities in Australia's south-east, Sydney, Melbourne and the capital Canberra, were all blanketed in thick smoke, putting them among the most polluted cities in the world.

The Sydney Opera House and harbour bridge were barely visible on Wednesday through the smoke wafting in from bush fires that have devastated huge swathes of the Blue Mountains and other national parks to the north and west of the city.

The air quality in national capital Canberra, which at times has been the worst in the world in recent weeks, was deemed unhealthy by AirVisual.

In rural areas, many towns were without power and telecommunications and some were running low on drinking water supplies.

The bush fire crisis follows a three-year drought that experts have linked to climate change and that has left much of the country's bushland tinder-dry and vulnerable to fires.

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