A dozen bushfires have hit “emergency” warning level across NSW with soaring temperatures and strong winds fanning flames as much of the state remains in extreme fire danger.
NSW Rural Fire Service community safety officer Marty Webster says there is an “enormous” amount of fire in southern NSW and conditions have been worsening throughout Saturday afternoon in line with forecasts.
“It felt this morning we may possibly get away (with it) but things are starting to unfold the way it was suggested,” he told ABC TV.
“Our grave concern is for people who haven’t acted on our advice and are in bushland areas.”
The worsening conditions come as Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced boosted federal assistance for bushfire fighting and disaster recovery as the national bushfire emergency continues over the weekend, with 3000 Australian Defence Force reservists to assist in fire-affected areas.
“The issue that is needed today is boots on the ground, planes in the air, ships at sea and trucks rolling into communities that have been impacted,” Mr Morrison said.
The troop deployment and extra resources come as a police forensic team is on its way to South Australia’s Kangaroo Island after two people were confirmed dead and fire crews continue to battle out-of-control bushfires across the island.
The latest tragedy on Saturday follows the deaths of two Victorians killed in the East Gippsland fire zone and another 21 people are still missing.
The deaths take the national bushfire death toll to 23 and are an ominous sign for NSW and Victoria bracing for a “fire onslaught” with terrifying conditions forecast for Saturday afternoon.
As of 3pm on Saturday, there are 12 emergency warnings across NSW and extreme fire danger warnings in six districts where a state of emergency has been declared; there are 14 emergency warnings (with 12 major fires burning) in Victoria where a state of disaster has been declared.
In Tasmania, 30 fires are burning across the state, and two homes have been destroyed.
For further information on bushfires across eastern Australia or if you are concerned about family and friends, more information can be found at the following emergency services links:
The wind change has just cleared the far east coast of #Victoria. The graphic shows smoke haze concentrated on the change as it moves over #Gippsland and esatern Bass Strait. Thanks to @JMA_kishou for enabling rapid scan imagery of its Himawari-8 satellite #VicFires pic.twitter.com/jNqrCJ2b5D
— Bureau of Meteorology, Victoria (@BOM_Vic) January 4, 2020
Wind gusts of almost 70km/h have already been recorded in Victoria’s Mt Hotham region and will continue to increase throughout the day, authorities warn.
The cool southerly hit the coastal areas of the state about 2.30pm on Saturday, forcing temperatures to drop by up to 15 degrees, and potentially causing thunderstorms later on Saturday as winds continue to build. Further north on the state’s border, temperatures pushed 45.8 degrees at Albury-Wodonga.
Several road closures in the north east and in East Gippsland mean it will make it impossible to leave if new blazes start. In NSW, parts of the Princes Highway, Kings Highway and the Snowy Mountains Highway are closed.
In NSW, tens of thousands continue to flee the south coast as the death toll there stands at 17.
Premier Gladys Berejiklian urged people to evacuate bushfire hotspots while they still had time, but authorities have warned the window to leave is closing.
Emergency warnings are in place for fires in the Snowy Monaro and Snowy Valley regions as well as on the south coast.
The 268,000-hectare Green Wattle Creek fire southwest of Sydney is also burning at an emergency level.
More than 3000 firefighters are on the frontline, with 31 specialist strike teams in place across NSW as firefighters warn some towns cannot be defended.
NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said temperatures would soar past 40 degrees in NSW before a “volatile” southerly wind sweeps through on Saturday afternoon.
EMERGENCY WARNING – Currowan (Shoalhaven LGA)
A fire-generated thunderstorm has formed over the Currowan fire on the northern edge of the fire near Nowra. This is a very dangerous situation. Monitor the conditions around you and take appropriate action. #nswfires #nswrfs pic.twitter.com/a5Mt6e1EAQ
— NSW RFS (@NSWRFS) January 4, 2020
Meanwhile, SA Police said the Kangaroo Island deaths were initially thought linked to a burnt-out car found near Pardana.
South Australian Premier Steven Marshall said: “At the moment the focus is on informing [their] next of kin. Our hearts go out to the family of those people that have been affected.”
A watch and act warning remains in place for the fire which has now destroyed about 100,000 hectares including large parts of the Flinders Chase National Park.
The operators of the Sealink ferry service said up to 300 people were currently at a relief centre in Kingscote seeking passage to the mainland and it was working with authorities to get them on board as soon as possible.
It urged other people planning to travel to the island to defer their trip if it was not essential.
However, homes and other properties are feared lost and tourism infrastructure and hundreds of hectares of plantation forest has been damaged or destroyed.
The blaze broke out late last month and was burning within containment lines before extreme weather conditions on Friday allowed it to breach control lines, with the fire described as “virtually unstoppable” as it began to spread quickly.
The luxury Southern Ocean Lodge on the west coast suffered structural damage but the owners said all guests were moved to Kingscote or Adelaide before the threat intensified.
The entirety of Kangaroo Island on alert, thousands of hectares destroyed, homes undoubtedly lost, huge blow to tourism with Southern Ocean Lodge damaged. Can't even begin to think about the wildlife and koala population… Unbearable. #SAFires #AustraliaBurning #KIFires pic.twitter.com/6ySCwgDQ1s
— Matilda (@tilc9) January 3, 2020
Victorian death toll remains at two, with 21 missing
Twenty-one people are still missing in Victoria’s deadly bushfires raging in the state’s east that have already killed two men.
The number of missing people is expected to fluctuate, Chief Commissioner Graham Ashton says.
Authorities are trying to get into 18 isolated communities in East Gippsland and the northeast where fires have been raging all week, but so far access has only been achieved at two.
Many fires in East Gippsalnd have already merged and the current risk is the 124,000-hectare fire in the northeast at Corryong merges with another fire in NSW.
Fires and evacuation orders are also in place across Victoria’s Alpine region.
“We have a long way to go today. Today is a very challenging day for all of us,” Mr Crisp said.