Rescuers race to save animals in distress amid reports that half a billion mammals, bird and reptiles have died.
Residents in the path of bushfires that have ravaged southeastern Australia since September were urged to evacuate again on Thursday as hot and windy conditions threatened to regenerate huge bushfires.
The Rural Fire Service in New South Wales state told fire-weary community meetings in coastal communities south of Sydney that northwesterly winds were likely to drive blazes towards the coast once again.
Holidaymakers have retreated to beaches and into the ocean in the area in recent weeks as destructive fires and choking smoke have encroached on the tourist towns, scorching sand dunes in some places.
A disaster-level notice in large parts of neighbouring 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.
The unprecedented fire crisis in southeast Australia that has claimed at least 26 lives since September, destroyed more than 2,000 homes and shrouded large cities in smoke has focused many Australians on climate change. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has come under withering criticism at home and abroad for downplaying the need for his government to address the issue, which experts say has helped supercharge the blazes.
Al Jazeera’s Jessica Washington, reporting from Sydney, said while Australia was one of the world’s biggest producers of coal, many people wanted a change in government policy on the environment.
“We haven’t had any indication from the prime minister or any senior minister that we can expect any change in terms of the reliance on fossil fuel, but that is the sentiment among members of the public; that something does need to change,” she said.
In its annual Climate Statement, released on Thursday, Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology said 2019 was Australia’s hottest and driest year on record with the national mean temperature 1.52 degrees Celsius (34.7 Fahrenheit) above average, while rainfall was 277.6 millimetres (10.9 inches), 40 percent below average.The previous record low was set in 1902.
“The national annual accumulated Forest Fire Danger Index – an indication of the severity of fire weather – was the highest on record,” the statement said.
The bureau’s head of climate monitoring, Karl Braganza, said while more rainfall was expected, it would not be enough to put out the blazes.
“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 1 billion Australian dollars ($690m) to be spent over the next two years on wildfire management and recovery.
Ecologists at the University of Sydney on Wednesday doubled their estimate of the number of animals killed or injured in the fires to one billion.