Sunday 26 January 2020

Navy rescues hundreds trapped by bushfires as death toll climbs to 19

Sea rescue: Evacuees from the flames at Mallacoota, Victoria, are taken by landing craft to HMAS Sycamore. Photo: Reuters
Sea rescue: Evacuees from the flames at Mallacoota, Victoria, are taken by landing craft to HMAS Sycamore. Photo: Reuters

Giovanni Torre

The Australian navy evacuated by sea hundreds of people trapped by the country's bushfire crisis yesterday.

Tens of thousands have fled their homes in New South Wales and Victoria as the death toll has risen to 19, with 28 people missing in Victoria.

HMAS Choules and Sycamore took 963 people from the town of Mallacoota in Victoria to safety at Western Port. For days, 4,000 people were trapped on the beach before fires subsided.

In New South Wales early yesterday, more than 140 fires were burning.

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More than 1,360 homes have now been destroyed and 3.6 million hectares burnt through in that state alone.

People in an area stretching hundreds of kilometres from Nowra to the Victorian border and west to Kosciuszko have been urged to leave.

High temperatures and strong winds have made the daunting task faced by thousands of fire fighters even worse.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison cut short Thursday's visit to Cobargo in New South Wales when locals shouted at him, made obscene gestures and called him an "idiot" and worse, criticising him for the lack of equipment to deal with the fires in town.

In a later interview, Mr Morrison was defensive about his handling of the crisis that has engulfed the region.

He denied having ignored the warnings of fire chiefs that Australia was heading into a catastrophic fire season.

"I listen to the fire chiefs that are in their jobs now," he said.

"They provided those exact same warnings and prepared our services to deal with the situation.

"Because of the drought, because of the fact there have been no quenching rains following the fires starting, that means this season is running longer and is presenting more difficult challenges."

Mr Morrison's response was seen to echo his repeated assertions that the fires are a natural disaster and not the result of climate change exacerbated by Australia's dependence on coal and other fossil fuels.

New South Wales transport minister Andrew Constance, a member of Mr Morrison's Liberal Party, said angry locals in Cobargo who confronted the prime minister "gave him the welcome he probably deserved".

Mr Constance, who escaped losing his home when fire tore through Malua Bay, said he didn't know Mr Morrison had planned to visit the area.

Gladys Berejiklian, the New South Wales premier, said: "There's no doubt people are justified in feeling angry.

"I don't begrudge anyone who is on the ground," she told radio station 2GB.

"Andrew is a good friend of mine and he's just seen the sheer devastation in his community."

Greg Mullins, a former New South Wales fire chief, told ABC Radio: "I'm angry about the prime minister's response. It reminds me of President Trump, when there's multiple shootings, saying 'there's nothing to do with guns'.

"We have to talk about climate change."

Late on Thursday, Daniel Andrews, Victoria's premier, declared an official state of disaster for six local government areas and the Alpine Resort, which gives the government special powers to deal with the crisis.

The declaration will allow forced evacuations and permit emergency services to take over properties.

Andrew Crisp, the state's emergency management commissioner, said humidity levels were "unusually low", at less than 10pc, in fire-affected areas in the state's east.

"What that means is that fires will travel at night.

"People talk about fires five years ago and that was not the case - generally fires overnight would settle down and you could rest and regroup but that's not what we're seeing," he said.

In South Australia state, fire officials said the weather conditions were a cause for concern because fires were still burning or smouldering.

"The ignition sources are already there," country fire service chief officer Mark Jones said.

"There are millions of sparks out there ready to go if they break containment lines."

The early and devastating start to Australia's summer wildfires has made this season the worst on record.

Irish Independent

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