Four people died in a roaring bushfire near Esperance in Western Australia on Wednesday, while “catastrophic” blazes are tipped to hit South Australia and possibly other eastern parts of Australia on Thursday.
WA Fire Commissioner Wayne Gregson confirmed two men and two women had died in fires in the Grass Patch and Salmon Gums areas.
Commissioner Gregson said he understood one man was in one vehicle and the other victims were in a second.
The ABC reported one of the men who died was local farmer Kym Curnow, who was driving around to tell others to evacuate, while the other three deceased were German backpackers.
The Department of Fire and Emergency Services Regional Superintendent Trevor Tasker said the blaze at Salmon Gums was the worst he had ever seen.
“The wind and weather conditions … there was no stopping it,” Mr Tasker said.
He said the speed of the fire caught firefighters off-guard and dozens of families have been evacuated.
“It definitely wasn’t planned, it was on the spot and flying by the seat of your pants,” he said. “It was moving at a rate of knots that you’ve never seen before.
“A lot of wheat bins have collapsed with just the heat on their legs, they’ve fallen over. Where the fire has gone through it looks like Chernobyl.
Esperance Shire President Victoria Brown said the remote coastal town had endured “the day from hell”.
“It was devastating,” she said. “They got many of the fires out, but there were a few still burning, and they combined into an inferno.”
On Wednesday evening (AEDT) the DFES said the inferno was still burning out of control. The latest warnings said the fire was moving north-west across WA.
Authorities confirmed three houses were destroyed in the blaze and more losses were expected once the hazardous conditions dissipated and people moved back into the town.
There are 200 firefighters on the ground, while 12 firetrucks and more resources were on their way to the town, a seven-hour drive from Perth.
Some 15,000 head of livestock had been destroyed and reports said smoke could be seen on satellite imagery over Victoria.
Four primary schools in WA’s south have been closed for the rest of the week as firefighters tackle the blazes.
Schools in Scaddan, Grass Patch, Salmon Gums and Cascade will remain closed.
“Principals at these schools have been in touch with parents and have made arrangements for students to attend alternative schools in the short term,” the Department of Education said.
WA Premier Colin Barnett and Emergency Services Minister Joe Francis arrived in Esperance on Wednesday.
Mr Barnett said the loss of four lives was devastating.
Mr Francis said people should put their thoughts and prayers with the Esperance community and the family and friends of the deceased.
“It’s a terrible tragedy and its a horrible way to start what’s obviously going to be an incredibly challenging bushfire season.”
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said Australians were grateful for the emergency services and SES firefighters risking their lives to save property and life.
“Summer can be a very challenging and dangerous time in Australia as we know, and this is a tragic event,” he said.
“Four lives lost in this fire in Esperance, so as I said, the Federal Government is committed to providing the support that it does in these circumstances.
‘Catastrophic fire’ warning for South Australia
With another day of extreme heat forecast for South Australia on Thursday, four districts are facing “catastrophic” fire warnings.
Adelaide was expecting a high of 35 degrees Celsius, after the mercury peaked above 40C on Wednesday.
The weather bureau said there would be strong north to north-west winds ahead of a gusty southerly change for southern regions of the state later on Thursday.
Firefighters would be on high alert and crews were still at a blaze south of Adelaide, which first broke out on Tuesday.
The Country Fire Service said the scrub fire at Yundi on the Fleurieu Peninsula was yet to be controlled.
Aerial bombers had been helping ground crews tackle the fire.
Some state schools and pre-schools in the catastrophic fire zones would be closed, the Education Department said.
New South Wales and Victoria also set to swelter
As areas of both states hit the high 30s and in some areas 40s on Thursday, a series of bushfire warnings have been issued by emergency services.
In Victoria, a watch and act notice remained in place for a bushfire in Devon North, Calrossie, Whitelaw (Wellington), Glen Rose, Macks Creek, Won Wron, in the state’s south-west.
A series of advice warnings have also been issued for blazes in the eastern part of Victoria, where temperatures would hit the high 30s and 40s.
These towns included Horsham, Lake Charm, Reedy Lake and Puckpunyal, Flowerdale, Strath Creek and Clonbinane in the central and north-central region.
In NSW, Millewa and Calimo near the Victorian border have an advice warning on a fire while a similar warning was out for Wentworth in the east of the state.
The central NSW towns of Ootha, Grogan, Ganmain and Barellan have also been issued advice warnings on fires.
– with ABC