Australia bushfire death toll rises as fire risk spreads west

Four people are now known to have died in ferocious blazes on east coast with high temperatures raising risk in west.

Australia fire
Australians were warned of a 'catastrophic' fire risk earlier this week. [Dean Lewins/AAP Image via Reuters]

The death toll in the bushfires raging across Australia’s New South Wales (NSW) state has risen to four after a man’s body was found in a scorched forest, as authorities warned on Thursday of worsening weather conditions to come. 

The fires have destroyed about one million hectares (2.5 million acres) of farmland and bush over the past week, fuelled by tinder-dry conditions and high winds after three years of drought that experts say has been exacerbated by climate change.

The man’s body was found late on Wednesday near the town of Kempsey in northeast NSW.

He is suspected to be a man who had not been seen since Friday.

“The man is yet to be formally identified, however, it’s believed to be the body of a 58-year-old man who lived in a shed nearby,” NSW Police said in an emailed statement.

Kempsey is just over 400km (249 miles) north of Sydney, Australia’s biggest city and has suffered under extreme conditions in recent weeks.

Some 300 homes have been destroyed in NSW alone in recent days as flames stretched from the state’s north down the coast to suburban Sydney.

Bushfires are common in Australia’s hot, dry summers, but the ferocity and early arrival of the fires in the southern spring this year has caught many by surprise.

Fire risk rises in west

About 60 fires were burning around NSW on Thursday morning while being battled by more than 1,000 firefighters, the Rural Fire Service said. 

Australia fire
Fires have started even before the start of Australia’s summer, sweeping through communities in the most populous state of New South Wales. [Darren Pateman/AAP Image via Reuters]

“We had a better day yesterday, only one fire got to emergency warning, but even in these pretty benign conditions we’re seeing quite a lot of aggressive fire behaviour simply because it’s so dry,” Rural Fire Service Deputy Commissioner Rob Rogers told the local television channel, Seven Network.

“Conditions starting to warm up tomorrow, into the weekend and then heating up early next week, a return to more gusty conditions. We’re in for the long haul,” he added.

Temperatures are also forecast to soar on Thursday in the west of the country.

Authorities said they were monitoring a fire on the outskirts of Karratha, a major gas-processing hub on Australia’s west coast. Temperatures are forecast to hit 43 degrees Celsius (109.4°F) on Thursday in nearby Port Hedland.

The annual Australian fire season, which peaks during the Southern Hemisphere summer, has started early after an unusually warm and dry winter.

In a climate outlook for the next three months released on Thursday, Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology said that most of the country would be drier than usual in the remainder of 2019 and that summer rainfall was likely to be below average in parts of the east.

Daytime temperatures were expected to be above average for the summer with night time temperatures also expected to be higher between December and February. 

“Australian climate patterns are being influenced by the long-term increasing trend in global air and ocean temperatures,” it noted.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies