Canberra calls up 3,000 reservists as fire crisis deepens

Evacuees disembarking the Australian Royal Navy's MV Sycamore at Bluescope Wharf in Victoria state, as part of bush fire relief efforts, on Jan 4, 2020.
Evacuees disembarking the Australian Royal Navy's MV Sycamore at Bluescope Wharf in Victoria state, as part of bush fire relief efforts, on Jan 4, 2020.PHOTO: AFP/AUSTRALIAN DEPARTMENT OF DEFENCE

First such call-up in Australia's history as death toll rises to 23, with more missing

Australia took the unprecedented step of calling up 3,000 reservist troops to assist in the catastrophic bush fire crisis yesterday 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 the authorities to urge people to evacuate.

The national death toll since the outbreak of fires in September last year increased by two yesterday to 23, with a further six people missing in the state of Victoria.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison yesterday 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, the authorities confirmed that two people died on Kangaroo Island, a large island known for its wildlife and beaches.

The victims were Mr 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 (NSW), scorching temperatures and high winds fuelled more than 100 fires burning across the state yesterday. In the outer Sydney district of Penrith, the temperature reached a record high of 48.9 deg C. Nine fires in the state were still at emergency levels late in the day.

A late southerly wind change across the south-east of the country was driving fires to the north and firefighters were bracing themselves 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". 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 said most of the town was saved.

But near the coast, a fire that has been burning for more than a month spread farther north into the picturesque Kangaroo Valley, south of Sydney, a popular tourist spot.

In Victoria, 18 communities were left stranded. The authorities have been able to access only two. Police said military helicopters will try to reach the communities to provide satellite phones.

Though the tragic fires have continued across Australia for months, the authorities warned yesterday 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."

The disaster prompted Mr Morrison yesterday to boost the federal government's role.

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 today to assist with evacuations.

Mr Morrison, who has come under intense pressure over his handling of the disaster, faced more anger yesterday after tweeting a "campaign ad" video heralding his announcements about the military. Opponents condemned the video as "disgusting".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 05, 2020, with the headline 'Canberra calls up 3,000 reservists as fire crisis deepens'. Print Edition | Subscribe