The flames have taken the lives of a dozen people in the past week, killed untold numbers of koalas and other animals, destroyed more than a thousand structures, forced tens of thousands of people to evacuate, choked cities with smoke and rendered the famed Sydney Opera House nearly invisible on the city’s harbor. The smoke has reached the lower stratosphere and crossed 9,000 miles of ocean to pollute the skies of South America.
Saturday was one of the worst days yet in a stretch of dangerous fire weather — blazing heat, parched brush and winds that topped 60 miles per hour. It was the hottest day on record in metropolitan Sydney, with the town of Penrith hitting 120 degrees, according to the Australian Bureau of Meteorology. The national capital, Canberra, set a record high with a temperature of 110 degrees.
The national government on Saturday began calling up 3,000 army reservists to conduct evacuations and help people in remote areas affected by the wildfire emergency. But the chief firefighter in New South Wales, Shane Fitzsimmons, complained Sunday that he didn’t know about the deployment until he saw the news on TV. He said he called the prime minister’s office for details.
“It is disappointing that on one of our worst days this season, to hear that announcement, then have to try to work through on top of everything else what it means and how it is going to operate,” he said in a television interview.
Roads have closed, and many residents and summer vacationers have been trapped in coastal towns and told to flee the flames by boat if there is no other option. More than 1,000 people and 113 dogs reached Melbourne on Saturday on two navy ships, the Sycamore and the Choules, which evacuated them from seaside towns ringed by fires.
In southern New South Wales state, people in a 70-mile coastal stretch were warned it was too late to leave the area and told to seek shelter, as an out-of-control blaze that had consumed more than 1,000 square miles of forest and farmland — more than 40 times the size of Manhattan — burned toward the Pacific Ocean and threatened to cut off escape routes. This season’s fires have burned through an area at least the size of West Virginia.
At Sanctuary Point, a normally bustling vacation town, 13 of the 18 shops on the main street were closed Saturday. Shopkeepers said the staff and owners had either left town or were preparing to defend their houses. Those who remained waited anxiously for a southerly change that could whip up the fire, and they kept watch for embers, which fire officials have said can ignite trees, leaves and grass up to seven miles ahead of a fire front.
Around midday, Helen Bowerman was pouring water into the guttering on her concrete-block and metal-roof house. With the air smelling of smoke, the 66-year-old said she was worried that tall trees on an adjacent property could catch fire and collapse.
Should the fire reach her, Bowerman said, she planned to dive into a large estuary next to her house. A neighbor had kayaks ready to go. “We all look out for each other and help each other out,” she said.
Farrugia Sammut, 82, said she had not been as scared since her childhood home in Malta was bombed during World War II. “We’re surrounded” by wildfires, the former factory worker said. “I can’t sleep at night for the worry.”
On Sunday, the Aussies got a break meteorologically. The cold front that blasted through Saturday brought more comfortable temperatures and the promise of a few calmer days.
But that same cold front had also delivered high winds through Saturday night, creating fresh emergencies as it pushed the conflagrations northward into new terrain. Four firefighters were injured overnight — three from smoke inhalation and a fourth from burns to his hands. Hundreds more houses had been destroyed, according to a fire brigade spokesman.
Despite the improved conditions, fire authorities said it wasn’t safe for people in many coastal towns to leave by road. The main highway south from Sydney to the coast was cut off by flames and smoke overnight in several locations. The highway linking Sydney and Melbourne — Australia’s two largest cities — was also closed.
More than 1,000 people spent the night at an emergency shelter in Bega, a town in southern New South Wales surrounded by national parks, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corp.
This past year was the hottest on record in Australia — and also the driest. The lethal combination has underwritten a fire season that started early, in September, and shows no sign of abating. The death toll since the fire season began stands at 23. The fires are so extreme that the weather bureau has warned of lightning strikes from what are called pyro-cumulonimbus clouds — fire-spawned thunderheads built of smoke, towering to 45,000 feet and generating ground-level convection that makes firefighting harder.
Forecasters do not anticipate any significant rain in the scorched regions for months.
This natural disaster is also a political flash point. The fires are a vivid signal of the global crisis of climate change, which can make ecological conditions more suitable to the ignition and intensification of wildfires. Climate change has been a divisive topic in Australia for years, a wedge issue that has decided elections.
In the past, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has downplayed the importance of tackling climate change and has offered full-throated support for coal mining. The fires have created the biggest test of that position, and of Morrison’s leadership, since his conservatives unexpectedly won a general election in May.
Even on a dry continent accustomed to fatal wildfires, footage of hundreds of civilians being evacuated by sea triggered a sense among many Australians that climate change poses an immediate threat to the nation, one of the world’s largest coal exporters. Three weeks ago, the country recorded its highest nationally averaged temperatures — twice in two days.
Already, the devastation has fueled calls for Morrison — who once brandished a lump of coal in Parliament to underline his support for mining — to take more concerted action on climate change. Australia’s share of global carbon dioxide emissions from domestic use of fossil fuels is about 1.4 percent, according to Climate Analytics, but the country is one of the highest emitters per capita.
“The best response I can provide to people who are feeling angry and isolated, people who are feeling afraid, is what I can do today,” Morrison said at a news briefing in Canberra, flanked by the minister of defense and the chief of the defense forces. “We’ll continue to take action on climate change.”
The fires have also undermined Morrison’s reputation as a man in touch with middle Australia.
The prime minister, who was snubbed and heckled by exhausted and angry firefighters and survivors in recent days, ordered what the government said was the first major use of military reserves to respond to this type of natural disaster. He also touted, in a promotional video, an Australian navy ship that has been ordered to the border between the states of New South Wales and Victoria to help evacuate people.
These moves followed criticism of Morrison’s decision to vacation in Hawaii after the fires began, and there is a perception that state-based firefighting services have been overwhelmed by blazes that have destroyed more than 1,300 homes.
“He deserves it,” said Geoff Monkhouse, a 76-year-old retired electrical contractor who was drinking beer at a Sanctuary Point country club on Saturday. “He should not go smiling around people that are suffering.”
Australia’s deadliest wildfire disaster was in February 2009, when 173 people were killed.
On Saturday, Andrew Constance, a conservative lawmaker from southern New South Wales, compared the fires in his region to “an atomic bomb.”
“It’s indescribable the hell it’s caused and the devastation it’s caused,” he told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.
Conditions beginning to deteriorate quickly on #NSW southern firegrounds. #Heat & #Wind are building which is increasing fire activity. People in southern regions & #ACT should urgently check latest update & continue to monitor https://t.co/UfWhZ6xbK3 @NSWRFS @nswpolice @ACT_ESA pic.twitter.com/cq4fr7jfsK— Bureau of Meteorology, New South Wales (@BOM_NSW) January 4, 2020
Volunteer brigades of the Rural Fire Service are being widely lauded as heroes. The government’s Fires Near Me website lists the status of the distinct fires: the Currowan (695,000 acres, “out of control”), the Green Wattle Creek (671,000, “out of control”), the Dunns Road (582,000, “out of control”), the Badja Forest Road (494,000, “out of control”) — and the tally goes on.
Radio host Richard Glover, presenter of “Drive” on ABC Radio Sydney, said he took a bucket to the studio Saturday in case he became nauseous from the toxic air. His listeners told tales of retching as they drove around the city. The fires are right up against the Sydney suburbs, an unfamiliar experience for residents.
In an email, Glover described the nature of the disaster, with office workers wearing breathing masks and senior citizens pressing hankies to their mouths as they walk the streets:
“There are the unprecedented fish deaths in our inland rivers; the unprecedented level-one fire warning for Sydney; the unprecedented day of blazes in every state and territory.”
He summed up the mood: “Gnawing anxiety is everywhere, together with enormous gratitude and admiration for the ‘thin yellow line’ of volunteer fire-fighters who are standing in the way of the flames.”
In photos: Australia sees worst wildfires in decades
Achenbach and Freedman reported from Washington.