Australia’s firefighters battle historic blazes

Firefighters across Australia spent Tuesday battling some of the fiercest bushfires the country has seen for decades — and the danger isn’t over yet.

Authorities say there are reports of property damage and injuries throughout New South Wales, Australia’s most populous state, but have not confirmed the exact number. A number of emergency workers have also been injured on the front lines, including one who suffered a fractured arm and ribs.

So far, major population centers appear to be mostly unscathed, including Sydney, the state’s capital. The city is home to around 4.6 million people, but the greatest fire risk lies in rural areas outside the city center.

As of Tuesday evening Australia time, there were 85 fires burning across New South Wales, half of which are out of control.

The most serious blazes are burning in the state’s northeast. However, NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said the danger has not yet subsided.

“We still need to remain vigilant. We’ve been dealing with fires up the north coast, we’ve been dealing with new fires down around other parts of NSW,” he said. “We’ve still got many hours yet of these strong, dry winds.”

The fires have killed three people, and destroyed more than 100 homes and two schools so far. Some 600 educational institutions were closed on Tuesday and nine schools forced to evacuate as the fires approached.

The fires have also killed an estimated 350 koalas and threatened the habitat of many more.

Dangerous conditions

Authorities had warned ahead of Tuesday that dry conditions, high temperatures and strong winds could make for an incredibly dangerous fire day.

New South Wales and neighboring Queensland both declared states of emergency on Monday due to the forecast. Authorities also issued “catastrophic” fire warnings for the greater Sydney area, the greater Hunter area, Illawarra, and Shoalhaven.

It was the first time the catastrophic warning had been issued for Sydney since the current fire threat system was introduced in 2009.

A “catastrophic” fire threat is the worst level possible and calls on residents to evacuate ahead of time: “For your survival, leaving early is the only option,” the warning states. The fear is that those who do not leave before the fire nears their homes could find themselves trapped by the blazes.

David Elliott, the NSW minister for police and emergency services, said in a speech to parliament Tuesday that the state was “entering uncharted territory” due to the fire emergency.

The blazes have already destroyed three times more land in New South Wales than during the entire fire season last year — even before summer truly begins.

“This is a very real emerging disaster which we need to take on and consider as being something that this state may not have ever seen before,” Elliott said.