SYDNEY • Australian firefighters warned they were in "uncharted territory" as they struggled to contain out-of-control bush fires across the east of the country yesterday.
About 100 blazes pockmarked the New South Wales and Queensland countryside, and 17 of them were uncontained late yesterday.
"We have never seen this many fires concurrently at emergency warning level," New South Wales Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons told public broadcaster ABC. "We are in uncharted territory."
Firefighters had already been tackling sporadic blazes for months in the lead-up to the southern hemisphere summer. But this is a dramatic start to what scientists predict will be a tough fire season - with climate change and unfavourable weather cycles creating a tinderbox of strong winds, low humidity and high temperatures.
So far, there have been no reports of fatalities, although there were reports of buildings set alight and people trapped in their homes.
The blazes were spread along a roughly 1,000km stretch of the seaboard, leaving emergency services struggling to cope, even with the help of about 70 aircraft.
"Today has been a difficult and dangerous day. Unfortunately, many people have called for help, but due to the size and speed of the fires we couldn't get to everyone, even by road or helicopter," New South Wales firefighters said.
The state authorities said fires had breached containment lines and forced the closure of two parts of the Pacific Highway linking Sydney and Brisbane.
On Queensland's Sunshine Coast, police ordered the total evacuation of Tewantin, a suburb of 4,565 people, before scaling back the order.
In some areas, residents were stuck and told to simply "seek shelter as it is too late to leave". Local radio stopped normal programming and provided instructions about how to try to survive the fires if trapped at home or in a vehicle.
Across the central coast, residents took to social media to post photos and videos of smoke-filled tangerine skies and flames engulfing storeys-tall eucalyptus trees within sight of their homes.
The authorities said some of the fires were creating their own weather conditions - pyrocumulus clouds enveloping entire towns.
Meanwhile, high winds flung embers and burnt debris far ahead of the fires' front lines, depositing the dangerous detritus on the homes of unsuspecting residents.
Firefighters moved from spot to spot trying to put out small fires caused by the falling debris. Strong winds and high temperatures are expected to ease into the weekend, offering a chance of respite.
But a prolonged drought and low humidity levels will continue to make circumstances combustible.
"It's a very dynamic, volatile and dangerous set of circumstances," said Mr Fitzsimmons.
Earlier this month, some of the same fires cloaked Sydney in hazardous smoke for days, giving the city a higher concentration of particles per million than cities like Bangkok, Jakarta and Hong Kong.
Swathes of Australia have gone months without adequate rainfall, forcing farmers to truck in water at an exorbitant cost, sell off livestock or leave their land to lie fallow.
On Wednesday, the Australian government announced a package of low-cost loans worth around A$1 billion (S$930 million) to help drought-stricken farmers.