SYDNEY • Australian officials issued fresh evacuation warnings yesterday, ahead of a forecast spike in the intensity of out-of-control bush fires that have devastated vast swathes of countryside and sent smoke clouds as far away as Brazil.
Residents of Victoria state's fire-ravaged east were urged to leave before another heatwave raises the bush fire danger tomorrow, while the state authorities in South Australia began relocating people from a small community on Kangaroo Island after deadly fires there.
"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."
The catastrophic bush fires have been fuelled by a crippling drought that has turned forests to tinder, and exacerbated by climate change which scientists say is increasing the length and intensity of Australia's fire season.
The authorities yesterday confirmed that a fourth firefighter had died while battling the blazes, bringing the overall death toll to 26 people.
More than 2,000 homes have been destroyed since the crisis began in September last year. More than 6.3 million hectares have been burned, according to the BBC.
University of Sydney scientists estimate one billion animals have been killed in the fires. The figure includes mammals, birds and reptiles, but not frogs, insects or invertebrates.
Despite days of cooler weather and rainfall in parts of the country's east, dozens of areas are continuing to burn out of control, and Australians are bracing themselves for yet another heatwave that could spark fresh fires.
The country experienced its driest and hottest year on record last year, with its highest average maximum temperature of 41.9 deg C recorded in mid-December.
The blazes, unprecedented in scale even in bush fire-prone Australia, have shocked the world and prompted an outpouring of support from celebrities, athletes and leaders around the globe.
The authorities are warning that the disaster still has weeks or even months to run.
Residents have begun returning to fire-ravaged towns to assess the damage, but the cost of the disaster was still unclear.
The Insurance Council of Australia says claims worth A$700 million (S$650 million) have already been filed and the figure is expected to climb significantly.
The government has earmarked an initial A$2 billion for a national recovery fund to help devastated communities.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has urged foreign tourists not to be deterred by deadly wildfires even as the authorities fretted about renewed dangers ahead.
Mr Morrison made the plea as he visited Kangaroo Island.
"Australia is open, Australia is still a wonderful place to come and bring your family and enjoy your holidays," he told reporters after meeting 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."
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS