SYDNEY -Australia took the unprecedented step of calling up 3,000 reservist troops to assist in the catastrophic bush fire crisis on Saturday (Jan 4) as the heat and fierce winds caused fire-generated thunderstorms and left regions shrouded in an eerie daytime darkness.
In south-east Australia, soaring temperatures fuelled hundreds of fires yesterday that threatened towns and prompted authorities to urge people to evacuate.
The national death toll since the outbreak of fires in September increased by two on Saturday to 23, with a further six people missing in the state of Victoria.
The Prime Minister, Mr Scott Morrison, on Saturday expanded the role of the Australian Defence Force and ordered the compulsory deployment of army reservists – the first such call-up in the nation’s history. The troops will evacuate stranded residents, provide relief to isolated communities, reopen roads and supply routes, and help firefighters to create fire breaks.
“We have seen this disaster escalate to an entirely new level,” Mr Morrison told reporters.
“There is still a very long way to go and there are clearly communities that need additional help.”
In the state of South Australia, authorities confirmed that two people died on Kangaroo Island, a large island known for its wildlife and beaches. The victims were Dick Lang, 78, a pilot and tour operator, and his son Clayton, 43, a surgeon. About a third of the island has been ravaged by the fires, which remain an active threat.
In New South Wales, scorching temperatures and high winds fuelled more than 100 fires burning across the state on Saturday. In the outer Sydney district of Penrith, the temperature reached a record high of 48.9 degrees Celsius.
Nine fires in the state were still at emergency levels late in the day – meaning residents faced an immediate, potentially life-threatening danger.
A late southerly wind change across the south-east of the country was now driving fires to the north and fire fighters were bracing for a long night.
In the Snowy Monaro region in the state’s south-east, the NSW Rural Fire Service warned that the swirling conditions had generated a dangerous “fire-generated thunderstorm”.
The service’s commissioner, Mr Shane Fitzsimmons, said such thunderstorms had enough energy to “flip over a ten-tonne truck”. He said firefighters had been withdrawn from the area, noting that similar weather patterns led to the death of a firefighter earlier this week.
“We’re issuing alerts and firefighters are being withdrawn for safety,” he said.
Near the NSW alpine region, whole towns were urged to evacuate as fires bore down on them, including the tourist town of Batlow, famous for its apples. Social media reports say most of the town was saved.
But near the coast, a fire that has been burning for more than a month spread further north into the picturesque Kangaroo Valley, south of Sydney, a popular spot with tourists.
In Victoria, eighteen communities were left stranded. Authorities have only been able to access two. Police said military helicopters will try to reach the communities to provide satellite phones.
“As soon as they get notified that the smoke will allow entry, they will be into there through the course of the day,” said Victoria Police Chief Commissioner, Mr Graham Ashton.
Though the tragic fires have continued across Australia for months, authorities warned on Saturday that these were still early days in the annual bush fire season.
“I would emphasise to everyone this is not over,” said South Australia’s Country Fire Service chief officer Mark Jones. “The fire season is in its infancy.”
Since September, the fires have destroyed more than 1,500 homes in all six Australian states, including the island of Tasmania. Tens of thousands of homes have been left without power.
The disaster prompted Mr Morrison on Saturday to boost the Federal Government’s role after he previously signalled that its role was limited because firefighting was a “state responsibility”.
The Federal Government will lease an extra four water bombers at a cost of A$20 million (S$18.7 million) to add to the seven such planes already operating.
In addition, the Navy’s largest amphibious ship, the 400-crew HMAS Adelaide, will arrive off the coast south of Sydney from Sunday to assist with evacuations. Three Chinook helicopters will be deployed to support evacuations, as well as aircraft including a C-17 Globemaster and two C-130 Hercules.
Mr Morrison has come under intense pressure over his handling of the disaster. He has faced criticism over his failure to commit to tougher climate change policies and caused anger by travelling to Hawaii on a family holiday last month as the flames raged.
He faced more anger on Saturday after tweeting a video heralding his announcements about the military, and his Liberal Party made a similar post linking to the party website. Opponents condemned the video as “disgusting” and a respected defence force association said the party was “milking” the crisis.