SYDNEY • Thousands of holidaymakers have evacuated a popular tourist spot in south-east Australia as a heatwave and strong winds fuel wildfires sweeping through the region.
But with temperatures hitting 40 deg C yesterday and blazes closing sections of the main highway, many more tourists and residents of East Gippsland in the state of Victoria are now unable to leave.
"It's a very serious, life-threatening situation," Bureau of Meteorology senior forecaster Kevin Parkyn told the ABC.
The authorities warned that conditions in the forested coastal region are the worst since 2009, when the state's Black Saturday blazes left 180 people dead.
The emergency is the latest development in a wildfire crisis that has gripped Australia since the blazes broke out months ago during the southern hemisphere winter amid a prolonged drought.
The fires, which are affecting several states, have triggered an emotive debate about the impact of global warming in the world's driest inhabited continent.
At least 10 people have been killed and hundreds of homes destroyed, putting pressure on Prime Minister Scott Morrison's conservative government, which champions the coal industry and has dismissed calls to take more steps to curb emissions. The latest casualty was a volunteer firefighter who was battling a blaze in New South Wales, according to the Rural Fire Service in a tweet.
The authorities on Sunday urged some 30,000 tourists to immediately leave East Gippsland, an area about the size of New Jersey, before the weather deteriorated.
While many heeded the advice, the officials said there was no mass exodus, as holidaymakers chose to remain in popular towns like Lakes Entrance, renowned for its inland waterways and pristine beaches.
Emergency warnings have been issued for eight fires in the region, about a four-hour drive east of the state capital Melbourne. Some of the fires are so large that they are generating their own weather systems and triggering dry thunderstorms, according to the Bureau of Meteorology.
An emergency warning was also issued for suburbs just 15km north of central Melbourne, where a bush fire was moving through parkland and threatening homes.
A severe heatwave is also spreading across the country. Conditions worsened last Friday with temperatures reaching 47 deg C in Western Australia, and topping 40 deg C in every region - including the usually temperate island of Tasmania, Australia's closest point to the South Pole.
Parts of western Sydney, the capital of New South Wales, were forecast to reach 44 deg C today, according to the Bureau of Meteorology. Despite the heatwave, Sydney's New Year's Eve fireworks, which draw tens of thousands of tourists to the city for the harbourside spectacle, will go ahead.
The city council has rejected a petition calling for the display to be scrapped and the money to be donated to bush fire and drought relief projects, saying the event is watched by millions of people worldwide and generates A$130 million (S$122.7 million) for the local economy.
Still, the evening's fireworks display in national capital Canberra has been cancelled due to a total fire ban there. And an annual music festival in Lorne on Victoria's Great Ocean Road has been cancelled due to extreme fire conditions with about 9,000 festival-goers told to pack up and leave.
New South Wales has borne the brunt of the fires, which have burned out more than 2.5 million ha of forest and bush land and destroyed the habitat of native animals, such as koalas.
About 100 bush and grass fires were burning across the state yesterday. A giant blaze north-west of Sydney, known as the Gospers Mountain fire, has destroyed nearly 485,600ha - an area about seven times the size of Singapore.
Another massive blaze, the Currowan fire, has wreaked havoc along the coast south of Sydney, threatening tourist towns and forcing the authorities to intermittently close the main highway. The fire stretches about 96km from Nowra to the resort town of Batemans Bay and has destroyed about 214,500ha of land.
BLOOMBERG, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE