Selasa, 31 Desember 2019

Thousands Flee to Shore as Australia Fires Turn Skies Blood Red - The New York Times

SYDNEY, Australia — As the fire stalked toward the coastal town of Mallacoota, the daytime sky turned inky black, then blood red. Emergency sirens wailed, replaced later by the thunder of gas explosions. Thousands of residents fled their homes and huddled near the shore. There was nowhere else to go.

On the last day of the warmest decade on record in Australia, the country’s east coast was dotted on Tuesday with apocalyptic scenes like the ones in Mallacoota, a vacation destination between Sydney and Melbourne.

Australia is in the grip of a devastating fire season, with months of summer still to go, as record-breaking temperatures, strong winds and prolonged drought have ignited huge blazes across the country.

In Mallacoota, residents in boats shared footage of themselves on social media wearing masks and life vests as they waited in the eerie light. Others opted to stay and defend homes, likening burning trees to “exploding infernos” and describing the roar of the blazes.

In Batemans Bay, four hours north, residents sat on folding chairs along the beach, life rafts at the ready, as a fire encircled the town and burned homes. To the south, in Cobargo, a father and son died in a blaze as they tried to protect the family home, bringing the death toll to at least 11 in this season’s fires.

With several blazes burning out of control, thousands were stranded in evacuation centers in other towns along the coast as firefighters told people to stay put. Tens of thousands of people were without power, the Australian military was authorized to deploy aircraft and naval vessels, and the government requested firefighting help from Canada and the United States.

In Sydney, where heavy smoke from fires has obscured the sun many days this summer, officials rejected calls to cancel the city’s signature New Year’s Eve fireworks display after the Rural Fire Service in New South Wales approved the celebration.

Still, the service’s commissioner, Shane Fitzsimmons, said on Tuesday that this fire season was one of the worst ever, with more than 900 homes destroyed in New South Wales and millions of acres burned. One blaze has reached the western part of Sydney.

The fires have been so fierce that they have created their own weather systems and forced volunteer firefighters to work around the clock. On Monday night, a volunteer firefighter died after a phenomenon called a fire tornado — turbulence caused by extreme rising heat — in New South Wales caused a 10-ton fire truck to roll over.

The firefighter, Samuel McPaul, 28, was due to become a father in May. He was the third volunteer firefighter to die this fire season; the other two were fathers of young children.

In Mallacoota, just over the border in the state of Victoria, residents had spent Monday night preparing to evacuate. As the fire approached, some gathered at a community center, while others climbed into boats in bodies of water.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said one man filming his escape on a boat.

Ida Dempsey of Melbourne, who spends Christmas every year in the area with her family, also took refuge on the water.

“We couldn’t see a thing. It was pitch black,” Ms. Dempsey said. “We had face masks; the smoke was very bad.”

She commended fire officials for keeping people calm. “If we didn’t have a plan, I would have panicked a bit more,” she said.

In Batemans Bay, said James Findlay, who grew up there, the fire came so quickly that there was no hope to save his family home.

“Everything’s gone,” he said.

His parents, Mr. Findlay said, were in shock.

“People have lost their homes, their farms, and people have lost their lives,” he said.

“If this isn’t some kind of a sign that more should be done, then I don’t know what is.”

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2019-12-31 09:42:00Z

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