Violent fires affect Australia, declared state of emergency

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"Nothing is built or designed to withstand the kind of catastrophic situation that can be expected," said one of the fire officials.

The World with AFP and AP Posted today at 12h02

Time to Reading 3 min.

A resident of Wytaliba holds her son in her arms as she waits to return home at a roadblock near Glen Innes, Australia, November 11, 2019.
A resident of Wytaliba holds her son in her arms as she waits to return home at a roadblock near Glen Innes, Australia, November 11, 2019. STRINGER / REUTERS

The people of the Sydney area were preparing, Monday, November 11, to face a situation "Catastrophic" because of the risk of recrudescence of fires. A situation that prompted the authorities to declare a state of emergency.

For the first time, Australia's largest city and its surroundings are facing the highest level of fire alarm ever issued. The authorities warned:"Lives and homes will be in danger. " "Nothing is built or designed to withstand the kind of catastrophic situation that can be expected"said Shane Fitzsimmons, fire chief of the state of New South Wales (Southeast), which includes Sydney.

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350 schools closed

The high temperatures and strong winds expected on Tuesday are expected to fuel bush fires, which led the state's prime minister, Gladys Berejiklian, to declare a state of emergency for a period of seven days. More than 350 schools will be closed and the army has been tasked with providing logistical support to the firefighters.

Dozens of uncontrolled fires in the north of the state have killed three people since Friday, destroyed more than one hundred and fifty homes and forced thousands to flee. In recent months, about 11,000 square kilometers – the equivalent of Jamaica or Kosovo – have burned, according to the New South Wales Fire Department.

The situation was calmer on Monday and some residents were able to return home. A cloud of toxic smoke persisted, however, in the areas affected by these bush fires. On Tuesday, the worst-hit areas are expected to be the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, the Hunter Valley wine region in the north, and the Illawarra region in the south.

In the town of Rainbow Flat, north of Sydney, emergency services rushed to cut tree branches and reopen roads on Monday to evacuate livestock from areas that could be devastated by bush fires. "Tomorrow, it will be about protecting life, protecting property and ensuring everyone is as safe as possible", said Mme Berejiklian. Some regions, already affected by the fires of recent days, are preparing to face this new threat.

In the coastal town of Old Bar, north of Sydney, firefighters were back to burn pockets that had not been spared by fires. "We are burning them so that it is no longer a threat in the coming days"said Brett Slavin, a firefighter.

Clouds of toxic smoke near Sydney.
Clouds of toxic smoke near Sydney. STEPHEN COATES / REUTERS

Toxic smoke

If Australia is used to bush fires, they have been extremely numerous and early this year. The first occurred in September from northern New South Wales to tropical Queensland. This beginning of the season is dramatic, and scientists are worried for the next few months. Climate change and adverse weather patterns have resulted in exceptional drought, low humidity, and strong winds that contribute to bush fires.

According to Paul Read, an expert at Monash University, this year the fires were "Much earlier than usual and it will get worse as summer approaches". In addition to the danger of death from these fires, it highlights the health risks of the clouds of toxic smoke they emit. "An air quality index above 300 is considered dangerous for everyone, not just for vulnerable people"says Paul Read. According to him, this level has already been exceeded in many places, including Sydney. The presence of toxic smoke clouds has been reported as far as New Caledonia, nearly 1,500 kilometers across the sea.

These fires, particularly early and violent, cause controversy, the Australian Conservative government being accused of minimizing the threat of climate change. Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack, leader of the National Party (part of the ruling coalition), has been criticized for hinting that this is not the time to talk about climate. "We do not need at this moment delusions of some pure, lighted and green capitals, whereas (people) try to save their homes, " did he declare.

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