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Australia braces for bush fire crisis to escalate amid scorching heat, high winds through the weekend

Fires expected to merge and make inroads toward populated areas.

Capital Weather Gang's Andrew Freedman discusses what caused the fires taking over Australia — and what's to come. (Video: The Washington Post)

Weather is set to worsen what is already one of the most widespread and devastating outbreaks of bush fires in Australia’s history. On Friday, “extreme” fire danger will encompass a swath of Australia that includes some of its most populated areas in Victoria and New South Wales in particular, with the possibility that separate fires could merge into even more monstrous blazes.

Ahead of the fires, officials have taken unprecedented steps to move people out of harm’s way, including evacuating tens of thousands in the predominantly coastal communities of southeastern Victoria and New South Wales. Some residents were rescued by the Australian military, including in Mallacoota, where residents were forced to take shelter on boats as a fire burned through the seaside town on New Year’s Eve.

Extreme fire danger gripped South Australia on Friday, with temperatures soaring into the triple digits across much of that state, including in Adelaide.

Why the Australia bush fires are so severe: A visual story

“Saturday is still shaping up to be another extremely dangerous day across Gippsland, northeast Victoria, and right along the New South Wales southern coast and ranges including the ACT [Australian Capital Territory],” said Bureau of Meteorology extreme-weather specialist Jonathan How in an online video briefing.

“Conditions are set to mirror or even deteriorate beyond what we saw on New Year’s Eve,” How said.

Temperatures are forecast to climb to 104 degrees (40 degrees Celsius) along the coast, including in parts of Sydney and Melbourne, the country’s two most populous cities, and up to 115 degrees (46 degrees Celsius) across interior regions. These temperatures will combine with strong northwesterly winds and bone-dry humidity to create potentially explosive fire weather.

Late on Saturday, a cold front sweeping northward from the southwest is forecast to move across the region hardest-hit on New Year’s Eve. This will bring cooler air, but gale-force winds could cause fires to spread embers far ahead of the main blaze, turning what was the flank into the new fire front, and making firefighting difficult to impossible for a time. The cold front is forecast to reach Sydney around midnight Saturday local time.

Penrith, located in the western reaches of Sydney, is marked as being in one of the potential “ember” zones on Saturday, according to a map by the New South Wales Rural Fire Service. The forecast map shows multiple fires making advances on popular vacation destinations and already affected areas, including Narooma and Batemans Bay.

The grim forecasts come as the fires cause tens of thousands of Australians to evacuate and crews to struggle to contain the damage. New South Wales alone was ablaze with 137 fires as of midnight Friday local time, the southeastern Australian state’s Rural Fire Service reported, adding that more than 2,000 firefighters are working throughout the night.

Hours earlier, the group urged people in the fires’ paths to “leave tonight before conditions worsen tomorrow morning.” But for some, officials say, it’s too late to evacuate. Authorities in Victoria — where Premier Daniel Andrews declared a state of disaster and said 28 people are missing — are advising residents in several areas to shelter indoors.

Videos captured “fire twisters” and hellish landscapes southwest of Adelaide on Kangaroo Island, a popular tourist destination where the mayor estimated about 10,000 people were present during the holidays.

“All hell is breaking loose on Kangaroo Island right now with key landmarks up in flames,” tweeted a reporter at 7NEWS Adelaide, Jessica Adamson. Friday morning, five emergency warnings, the most urgent category, were issued by the Victoria Country Fire Authority because of rapid bush fire spread.

Kangaroo Island was a particular concern Friday for South Australia Fire Chief Mark Jones, who said there were about 150 people deployed to fight fires there as flames broke through containment lines. A blaze of more than 50 square miles was “burning out of control” in scrub within the island’s Flinders Chase National Park, he said.

Jones was dismayed, he said, to hear that some people did not follow warnings to leave. “For some of those people, it may be too late," Jones said Friday afternoon, as 25 fires raged around South Australia and drew hundreds of personnel.

The fires have left 10 people confirmed dead since Monday: two in Victoria and eight in New South Wales, the Guardian reported. About 12.35 million acres have burned, according to the AP.

The blazes are also threatening wildlife. Last week, Australia’s federal environment minister Sussan Ley said bush fires have already dealt a serious blow to the koala population in New South Wales. Other wildlife, such as the western ground parrot and Kangaroo Island dunnart, a marsupial not found elsewhere, have been hurt, too, she said.

The fires have erupted following Australia’s hottest and driest year on record, and they have intensified during a December that ranks as one of the country’s hottest months in recorded history. December featured the country’s hottest day on record as well.

Human-caused global warming is raising the odds of and severity of extreme-heat events and also adding to the severity of wildfires by speeding the drying of the landscape, among other influences. The southern part of Australia has warmed by 2.7 degrees since 1950, according to climate researcher Zeke Hausfather of Berkeley Earth. This is consistent with the period of faster human-caused warming worldwide. In an illustration of the enormous scale of the fires, smoke lofted high into the atmosphere has drifted all the way to South America, a distance of about 9,000 miles.

Evacuate or stay and help?

Those who live and work in the affected areas — a region larger than the state of Maryland — are having to make stark choices.

Diane Lang, a nurse at the South East Regional Hospital in Bega, a town in New South Wales, said in a phone call that in recent days, patients have visited the hospital with burns and respiratory problems from smoke inhalation.

But as the fires worsened, the smoke seeped into the hospital where residents had sought relief.

Throngs of tourists are evacuating, she said, but it’s the locals who are most overwhelmed, as homeowners and shopkeepers grapple with the immediate threat of the fires on top of severe economic losses the fires are inflicting at the peak of tourist season.

“I think the repercussions of the trauma will be more noticeable in weeks to come and that will probably have the higher rate of injuries than actually some of the burns,” Lang said.

Lang’s partner, Clint Bradley, 67, a volunteer firefighter, is staying put in Rocky Hall, a small enclave around 40 miles from Bega. Most of the area’s residents have evacuated, Bradley said, but he chose to stay behind to “protect my property and to protect the community and to do my bit.”

Bradley, a winemaker who also works as a technician installing solar equipment, has worked as a volunteer firefighter for around 38 years. He typically only took a couple days off each year to help fight fires.

But this year, “the fires are behaving differently than I’ve ever seen in my years fighting fires,” he said. In the past six weeks alone, he said he has spent around 20 days firefighting. As an experienced firefighter, Bradley said he knows there’s no guarantee his house will make it through. “It’s certainly not completely safe, but I feel pretty confident about being able to survive the day,” he said.

“It’s probably going to be a nerve-racking time.”