Residents in the path of wildfires razing southeast Australia have been urged to evacuate as hot and windy conditions are forecast to escalate the danger over the next two days.
The New South Wales Rural Fire Service (RFS) told fire-weary community meetings south of Sydney in the coastal towns of Nowra, Narooma and Batemans Bay that northwesterly winds were likely to once again drive blazes towards the coast.
People on holiday have retreated to beaches and into the ocean in the area in recent weeks as destructive fires and choking smoke encroached on the tourist towns, scorching sand dunes in some places.
In the neighbouring state of Victoria, fire-threatened populations were also urged to act quickly on evacuation warnings.
“We can’t guarantee your safety and we don’t want to be putting emergency services — whether it be volunteers or paid staff — we do not want to put them in harm’s way because people didn’t follow advice that was given,” Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews said.
The unprecedented fire crisis in southeast Australia, which has claimed at least 26 lives, destroyed more than 2,000 homes and shrouded major cities in smoke, has focused many Australians on how the nation adapts to climate change.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has come under withering criticism both at home and abroad for downplaying the need for his government to address climate change, which experts say helps supercharge the blazes.
The country’s Bureau of Meteorology’s head of climate monitoring Karl Braganza said while the country’s rainfall was expected to pick up a bit, it would not be enough to snuff out the blazes anytime soon.
“Unfortunately, we’re not looking at widespread, above-average rainfalls at this stage,” he said.
“That’s really what we need to put the fires out fairly quickly. It is going to be a campaign, in terms of the fires. We are not looking at a short and sharp end to the event — it looks like something that we will have to persist with for some time.”
The New South Wales government responded to the crisis on Thursday by announcing an additional one billion Australian dollars (£520 million) to be spent over the next two years on wildfire management and recovery.
Pope Francis has joined world leaders in expressing solidarity with the Australian people.
“I’d like to ask for you all to pray to the Lord to help the (Australian) people at this difficult moment, with these powerful fires. I’m close to the Australian people,” Francis said at the end of his general audience on Wednesday, drawing applause from congregants.