MELBOURNE: Authorities issued new warnings and evacuation notices across southeast Australia on Thursday (Jan 9), as a return of hot weather fanned huge bushfires threatening several towns and communities.
A disaster level notice in large parts of Victoria state, already in place for the past week, was extended by 48 hours and people in danger zones were advised to leave if it was safe to do so.
"Don't get complacent from the rain we have had recently," Victoria Emergency Services Minister Lisa Neville said in a televised briefing, referring to several days of cool weather that has allowed firefighters to strengthen containment lines around blazes that have been burning for months.
"These fires are absolutely still moving, still growing in our landscape and they pose significant risk to communities," Neville said.
Twenty-six people have died, thousands have been made homeless and thousands of others have had to evacuate repeatedly as the monster fires have scorched through more than 10.3 million hectares (25.5 million acres) of land - an area the size of South Korea.
Authorities have said the blazes will continue to burn, posing extreme danger at times of high temperatures and winds, until the country experiences significant rainfall.
The official weather agency on Thursday confirmed fears that there was no sign of that happening in the next few months as it released its annual report, which also showed that 2019 was Australia's hottest and driest year on record.
While there was some rainfall coming from the north it would not be enough to douse the bushfires raging in the country's southeast, the bureau said.
"While the rainfall will be welcome, we’re stopping short of saying that it’s going to be drought-breaking or really relieving the conditions we’ve seen," the Bureau of Meteorology’s manager of climate monitoring Karl Braganza told reporters at a briefing on its annual climate statement.
CLIMATE CHANGE TRENDS WILL CONTINUE
The current crisis was sparked into life following a three-year drought that has left much of the country's bushland vulnerable to fires.
Many towns were without power and telecommunications and some were running low on drinking water supplies. Smoke has blanketed Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra, and drifted as far as South America.
Parts of Kangaroo Island, a wildlife-rich tourist spot off the country's southeast coast where Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Wednesday made a plea for foreign tourists not to be deterred by the fires, were again evacuated on Thursday. A third of the island has already been destroyed by fires.
The meteorology bureau said climate change and natural drivers, including warmer than normal waters in the Indian Ocean off Africa, had made 2019 Australia's hottest and driest year on record, with the highest ever forest fire danger rating.
The country had only 6 per cent of its typical annual rainfall last year, while daytime temperatures across were more than 2 degrees Celsius above normal.
"These are large departures that we saw in 2019, both in terms of how different they were to the average temperatures and rainfall that we see, but also compared to previous records as well," Braganza said.
He said these were part of longer term trends in temperature and fire weather that the bureau has observed. Rainfall has been tracked since 1900 and temperatures since 1910.
"Australia's getting warmer, the fire season's getting longer and the severity of the fire weather during that season is getting more frequent and severe," Braganza said.
"When we look at the projections that we do for climate change, certainly Australia should be preparing for those trends to continue."
The following are some highlights of what is happening in the bushfire crisis: