EDEN • Thousands of people fled their homes and helicopters dropped supplies to towns at risk of nearby wildfires as hot, windy conditions yesterday threatened already fire-ravaged south-eastern Australian communities.
The danger is centred on New South Wales and Victoria, Australia's most populous states, where temperatures and winds spiked after a few days of relatively benign conditions.
Firefighters were working into the night to keep the fires from reaching communities as fierce winds whipped the blazes in multiple directions.
The New South Wales Rural Fire Service had warned that coastal towns south of Sydney, including Eden, Batemans Bay and Nowra, could again be under threat weeks after losing homes to the fires.
The authorities yesterday urged nearly a quarter of a million people to evacuate their homes and prepared military backup.
Temperatures were expected to shoot well above 40 deg C in several parts of the country yesterday.
In the alpine region on the border between Victoria and New South Wales, two fires were poised to merge and create a blaze over almost 600,000ha.
PROTECTING THE COMMUNITY
We'll be there to help defend them through the night. There is a risk that we'll be cut off and we'll have to stay there throughout the time.
MR NATHAN BARNDEN, a divisional commander with the Rural Fire Service, on the fire threat to the New South Wales township of Burragate.
The authorities sent emergency texts to 240,000 people in Victoria, telling them to leave.
People in high-risk regions in New South Wales and South Australia were also urged to think about leaving, but officials did not say how many.
New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian said the extent of any damage from the fires would not be known until today. "We know it's going to be a long and difficult night," Ms Berejiklian said.
In neighbouring Victoria, Premier Daniel Andrews pleaded with residents to heed alerts and avoid complacency even though no fresh destruction was being reported.
"Despite this unprecedented fire activity, we have nobody who is unaccounted for, we have no further people who have died, and we have no further communities who have been cut off," Mr Andrews told reporters. "Now, all of those things can change and that is perhaps the most powerful reminder that we have to remain vigilant."
The unprecedented fire crisis in south-east Australia has claimed at least 26 lives, destroyed more than 2,000 homes and scorched an area twice the size of the US state of Maryland since September.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said yesterday that the military was on standby to help firefighters and emergency agencies.
The military has already been involved in the unfolding crisis by clearing roads closed by fallen trees, burying dead cattle and sheep, and providing fodder to surviving livestock.
Fire crews throughout the region were bracing themselves for a long, rocky night.
In the south-eastern New South Wales town of Candelo, Mr Nathan Barnden, a divisional commander with the Rural Fire Service, was preparing to head to the nearby township of Burragate with his team to protect the community from a fire that was marching north.
The fire had breached containment lines in one area, and officials were worried that predicted winds of 60kmh to 100kmh could push it into populated areas. "We'll be there to help defend them through the night," Mr Barnden said. "There is a risk that we'll be cut off and we'll have to stay there throughout the time."
The wildfire disaster has focused many Australians on how the nation adapts to climate change. Yesterday, thousands of protesters gathered in cities across Australia to call for action on climate change and demand that Mr Morrison be ousted.
ASSOCIATED PRESS, REUTERS