SYDNEY (AFP, BLOOMBERG, REUTERS) - A volunteer firefighter died on Monday (Dec 30) and two others suffered burns after their truck rolled over when it was hit by extreme winds amid raging bushfires.
The firefighters were working on a fire about 70 km east of Albury in New South Wales, fire authorities tweeted.
Tourists and firefighters were forced to flee the vast fires burning in south-eastern Australia, as a heatwave rekindled devastating bush blazes across the country.
Authorities said "quite a number" of the 30,000 tourists visiting the usually picturesque south-east tip of the continent had heeded calls to evacuate.
More than a dozen blazes are raging in the East Gippsland countryside, some so intensely that hundreds of firefighters were pulled back beyond a firefront estimated to stretch 1,000km.
It was deemed "unsafe" for them to remain in bushland areas, Gippsland fire incident controller Ben Rankin said.
It is the latest emergency in Australia’s devastating summer fire season, which has been turbocharged by a prolonged drought and climate change.
Ten people have been killed, more than 1,000 homes destroyed and more than three million hectares – an area bigger than Belgium – have been scorched.
Conditions worsened on Friday with high winds and temperatures soaring across the country – reaching 47 deg C in Western Australia, but topping 40 deg C in every region – including the usually temperate island of Tasmania.
The situation was “very intense” said Mr Rankin, warning that conditions would worsen later in the day before temperatures drop markedly overnight.
"TOO LATE TO LEAVE"
Authorities had warned tourists enjoying Australia’s summer holidays in East Gippsland that the fires would cut off the last major road still open.
Victoria Emergency Management commissioner Andrew Crisp said residents and holidaymakers still in the area faced being stranded as it was now "too late to leave", with his agency warning it was "not possible" to provide aid to all visitors in the area.
While many heeded the advice to evacuate, officials say some holiday-makers chose to remain in popular towns such as Lakes Entrance, renowned for its inland waterways and pristine beaches.
The area is already threatened by three major blazes, while soaring temperatures, wind and lightning could see more fires break out on Monday.
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, they are generating their own weather systems and triggering dry thunderstorms, according to the Bureau of Meteorology.
A severe heatwave is spreading across the country. Parts of western Sydney are expected to reach 44 deg C by Tuesday, according to the Bureau of Meteorology.
Sydney's New Year's Eve fireworks celebrations, which draw tens of thousands of tourists to the city for the harbourside spectacle, will go ahead regardless.
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 million) for the local economy.
The authorities will liaise with the fire service to ensure the event can be held safely.
Still, the evening’s fireworks display in national capital Canberra has been cancelled due to a total fire ban there.
And the annual music festival in Lorne along Victoria's Great Ocean Road has been cancelled due to extreme fire conditions and about 9,000 festival-goers have been told to pack up and leave.
Parts of South Australia face catastrophic fire conditions on Monday, the highest rating on the state's danger scale.
New South Wales has borne the brunt of the fires, which have destroyed the habitat of native animals such as koalas. Images of the marsupials drinking water from bottles after being rescued have gone viral on social media in recent days.
About 100 bush and grass fires were burning across the state on Monday. A giant blaze north-west of Sydney, known as the Gospers Mountain fire, has destroyed more than 485,600ha of land - an area about seven times the size of Singapore.
Another massive blaze, the Currowan fire, has played havoc with holiday-makers 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.
Mr Morrison announced on Sunday that many members of the largely volunteer Rural Fire Service in New South Wales would be eligible for compensation of up to A$6,000 for their efforts, if they are self-employed, work for small or medium businesses and have spent 10 days in the field.