Temperatures above 40C and strong winds created “catastrophic” conditions on Saturday for firefighters battling more than 100 fires burning across New South Wales state, while in South Australia one person was found dead in a fire zone.
Some roads outside Sydney were closed and authorities asked people to delay travel, at the start of what is normally a busy Christmas holiday period, warning of the unpredictability of the fires as winds of up to 70 km/h were set to fan the flames.
“Catastrophic fire conditions are as bad as it gets,” NSW Rural Fire Services Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons told journalists.
“They are the very worst of conditions. Given we have a landscape with so much active fire burning, you have a recipe for very serious concern and a very dangerous day.”
Greater Sydney and two surrounding areas were rated as catastrophic for Saturday, and other areas were at extreme or very-high fire danger ratings.
Close to 10,000 emergency personnel would be working across NSW on Saturday. The state’s Minister for Police and Emergency Services David Elliott described it as probably the largest emergency deployment ever seen in NSW.
“They’re there, four days before Christmas, to keep families safe,” Elliott told media.
A southerly wind change is expected late on Saturday afternoon. It is forecast to bring winds of up to 90 km/h, which Fitzsimmons said would initially worsen fire conditions before leading to a dramatic drop in temperatures.
The death of two firefighters on Thursday night when their fire truck was struck by a falling tree as it travelled through the front line of fire brought the wildfires death toll in New South Wales to eight since the start of October.
Shortly after the two deaths were announced, Prime Minister Scott Morrison issued a statement saying he would return as soon as possible from a family holiday in Hawaii, a trip that had drawn sharp criticism as the wildfires crisis deepened.
South Australia, Victoria fires
In South Australia, authorities said one person had been found dead, another was critically injured and 15 homes had been destroyed by a fire in the Adelaide Hills, just 40 km east of the state capital of Adelaide.
The death followed another fatality in South Australia on Friday, the result of a car crash in an area where an emergency fire warning was in place.
Authorities said 23 firefighters suffered injuries on Friday as the parts of the state endured catastrophic fire conditions.
In the state of Victoria, 15 blazes were burning out of control on Saturday morning, with an emergency warning placed on two in the state’s east.
Australia has been fighting wildfires across a number of states for weeks, with blazes destroying more than 700 homes and nearly 1.2 million hectares of bushland.