Fires in Australia 2020: tens of thousands of evacuations in southeastern cities

Tens of thousands of Australians evacuated their homes on Saturday to flee forest fires aggravated by catastrophic weather conditions. 

Fires in Australia.

Sydney, the country's main city, is threatened with power cuts.

Fires in australia 2020.
Fires in Australia 2020

  • Saeed KHAN, Fires in Australia 2020. Australians bathe in Lake Jindabyne in New South Wales to cool off while the sky is red with fire, 4 January 2020.

Australia fires

Temperatures exceeded 40 ° C on Saturday and strong winds were blowing, stoking hundreds of fires most of which are out of control.

"Compared to the forecasts (concerning the worst-case scenario) that was made this morning, unfortunately, they are coming true," lamented Gladys Berejiklian, the Premier of New South Wales, during a press briefing.

"These strong winds and high temperatures" should continue into the evening, said state fire chief Shane Fitzsimmons.

Sydney recorded record temperatures on Saturday, with 48.9 degrees recorded at Penrith in the western suburbs.

Australia's most populous city, with more than five million people in its metropolitan area, is threatened with power outages after two substations are destroyed by fire, and authorities have called on residents to limit their consumption of electricity.

In Canberra, the temperature has reached 44 degrees, an unprecedented figure, according to a spokesman for the Australian meteorological services.

In these two cities, temperatures could rise further.
Fires in Australia 2020.SAEED KHAN, Fires in Australia 2020. Fire in Braemar Bay, New South Wales, January 4, 2020

How bad are the fires in Australia?

Several warning messages were issued Saturday across the country. One of them concerns a fire south-west of Sydney which could reach the outskirts of the city.

A state of emergency was declared in the southeast of the island continent, the most populous region, and orders were given Friday to more than 100,000 people to evacuate to three states.

"We have literally seen tens of thousands of people leaving," said the New South Wales fire chief.

Tourists and inhabitants of the south-east of the country have thus abandoned their summer holiday resort or their accommodation. The highways connecting the coastal cities to Sydney and other major cities were congested by long lines of cars.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Saturday called for 3,000 military reservists to deploy, an unprecedented mobilization.
Fires in Australia 2020, image 3.PETER PARKS, Fires in Australia 2020. Firefighters fight a forest fire near Batemans Bay in New South Wales, Australia, January 3, 2020.

"This allows for more men on the ground, more planes in the sky, more ships at sea," said Morrison, criticized for his handling of the crisis.

Supermarkets, shops, closed pubs: a strange and disturbing calm reigned Saturday on Batemans Bay, a tourist town four hours away from Sydney, usually bustling with activity today plagued by the smoke of the surrounding fires.

The only sign of life in this locality, a reception center for evacuees where hundreds of residents forced to leave their homes have found refuge in tents and caravans, set up on land in the city.

Mick Cummins, 57, and his wife fled to the evacuation center when fire ravaged their village on New Years Eve.
Fires in Australia 2020, image 4.ROYAL AUSTRALIAN NAVY  / Shane CAMERON, Fires in Australia 2020. People evacuated from Mallacoota (Australia) by the Australian Navy on January 3, 2020.

"We said to ourselves: it's too hard for us, let's go out. We went to the beach and hellish flames arrived on the hill," he told AFP. "I was here during the 1994 fires. I thought it was hard. It was just a barbecue," he said.

Since the start of the fire season in September, 23 people have died in Australia, according to the Prime Minister.

Dozens more are missing, more than 1,500 houses have been reduced to ashes. An area equivalent to twice of Belgium or Hawaii burned.

The fires, destroyed almost all of Flinders Chase National Park on Kangaroo Island, which is home to kangaroos and koalas, authorities said on Saturday.

In the small seaside town of Mallacoota, the navy evacuated on Friday a thousand inhabitants and tourists surrounded by flames, some of whom had taken refuge on the seafront since New Year's Eve.

The first of two military vessels chartered to rescue them arrived near Melbourne early Saturday.

Eloise Givney, 26, managed to flee under police escort when she and others had spent four days without electricity, telephone or internet.

"The flames approached up to 50 meters from us. We had to drive among them because it was the only way to leave," she told AFP, describing flames of 15 meters from height on both sides of the road. "We were stranded without power for four days. We had five children with us but no food for a day."