SYDNEY • Tens of thousands of Australians took shelter yesterday after the authorities warned it was too late for them to leave their homes as bush fires raged across a vast area of the country's east coast.
Officials issued 14 emergency warnings in New South Wales (NSW), each covering several communities, by late afternoon as more than half the 78 fires across the state burned uncontrolled amid "catastrophic" conditions.
A fire that erupted in Sydney's northern suburbs in the late afternoon immediately cut off exit routes for some residents, a sign of the intensity of blazes erupting in tinder-dry bush.
"Complacency kills - we cannot afford for people to be complacent," New South Wales Rural Fire Service commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons told reporters in Sydney.
Bush fires also reached within kilometres of Sydney's city centre, prompting firefighting planes to spray red retardant over trees and houses in a northern suburb.
The authorities said they had brought under control one fire in the suburbs of Sydney, Australia's biggest city, although another blaze was out of control.
Aerial footage showed flames burning through a eucalypt forest in Turramurra on Sydney's north shore, around 20km from the centre of the city.
Firefighters were deployed in the area to protect houses.
Most of the 14 emergency warnings issued by the authorities yesterday, including the Turramurra fire, told affected residents they must seek cover and that it was too late to flee their homes.
Number of emergency warnings issued by the authorities yesterday.
Number of people killed.
Number of homes destroyed at the weekend.
Bush fires are a common and deadly threat in Australia's hot, dry summers but the ferocity and early arrival of this year's outbreak in the southern hemisphere spring has caught many by surprise.
Blazes have been spurred by extremely dry conditions after three years of drought in parts of NSW and Queensland states, which experts say has been exacerbated by climate change.
The current outbreak, which killed three people and destroyed more than 150 homes at the weekend, has been fanned by an unprecedented combination of high temperatures and strong winds.
In the small town of Wauchope, 400km north of Sydney, residents moved hundreds of livestock to the central showground as fires approached.
"We have at least 350 horses, maybe more. They are still coming, we have cattle and sheep and chickens and dogs and pigs, you name it," said Mr Neil Coombes, president of the Wauchope Show Society.
Mr Coombes, who lives about 10km outside town, said he would likely lose his home because it was in the anticipated path of the fire. "My wife went home earlier and said, 'Is there anything you want me to get?'," he said. "I said, 'Yes, I want you back here with me. If the house burns, it burns but I can't replace (you)'."
The worst of the weather was not expected until later in the afternoon and through the evening, with temperatures set to reach 37 deg C, along with strong winds.
Seeking to avoid further deaths, firefighters in both NSW and Queensland have been given broad powers under a seven-day state of emergency to control government resources, force evacuations, close roads and shut utilities.
In Sydney, home to five million people, the health authorities urged people with respiratory issues to stay indoors because the city was covered by a "hazardous" smoky haze. About 600 schools and colleges were closed across the state.
Meanwhile, organisers of Rally Australia have been forced to cancel this week's final round of the 2019 FIA World Rally Championship because of bush fires near the Coffs Harbour venue in NSW. The event had been scheduled to begin tomorrow and had already been scaled back due to the blazes.
The danger was not quite as great in Queensland. The threat level there was pegged at "severe", two levels below the "catastrophic" conditions in NSW. Still, some 55 fires were burning across the northern state yesterday.
The fires have focused attention on the policies of Australia's conservative government to address climate change, which meteorologists have said was extending the length of the fire weather season.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison, a vocal supporter of Australia's coal industry, has declined to answer questions about whether the fires were a result of climate change.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE