EDEN, (Australia): Thousands of people fled their homes and helicopters dropped supplies to towns at risk of nearby wildfires as hot, windy conditions threatened already fire-ravaged southeastern Australian communities. The danger is centered on New South Wales and Victoria, where temperatures and wind speeds are escalating after a few days of relatively benign conditions.
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 wildfires burning in that region were holding within containment lines, but a strong shift in winds predicted later could cause them to flare anew, Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said.
In neighboring Victoria, evacuation orders were issued in alpine areas. Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews pleaded with residents to evacuate fire-danger areas when alerts were issued. "If it is safe to get out, then you must get out. That is the only way to guarantee your safety," Andrews said. The unprecedented fire crisis in southeast 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 the Australian military was on standby to help firefighters and emergency agencies. “I've given them very clear instructions that they are to stand ready to move and support immediately,” Morrison said. “In the event that they are needed in the wake of what we hope we will not see today, but we must prepare for today.”
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. In the small village of Towamba in southern New South Wales, most residents had evacuated, after firefighters warned them that without a solid defense against the blazes, they should get out, said John Nightingale, a volunteer firefighter with the Rural Fire Service.
Last week, some houses in the village were destroyed by a fire. The wildfire disaster has focused many Australians on how the nation adapts to climate change. Morrison has come under blistering criticism for downplaying the need for his government to address climate change, which experts say helps supercharge the blazes. Morrison said a government inquiry into the fires would examine the role of climate change.