Tens of thousands of Australians took shelter on Tuesday after authorities warned it was too late for them to leave their homes as bushfires raged across a vast area of the country’s east coast and shrouded Sydney in smoke.
An aircraft was diverted to drop fire retardants on emergency bushfires threatening homes in Sydney’s northern suburbs. Television footage showed some of the retardant had overshot the blaze, colouring suburban houses and vehicles pink and red.
Officials were responding to more than a dozen emergency warnings in New South Wales (NSW), each covering several communities, by evening as more than half the 85 fires across the state burned uncontrolled amid “catastrophic” conditions.
“We need people to remain vigilant,” New South Wales Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons told reporters in Sydney.
“The last thing we can afford is for people to become complacent or be relaxed simply because we’re getting towards end of the day. There are many hours yet of high risk to deal with.”
Fitzsimmons said in a previous update a firefighter battling a blaze had suffered a heart attack, although his condition was unknown.
Bushfires are a common and deadly threat in Australia’s hot, dry summers but the ferocity and early arrival of this year’s outbreak in the southern hemisphere spring has caught many by surprise.
Blazes have been spurred by extremely dry conditions after three years of drought in parts of NSW and Queensland, which experts say has been exacerbated by climate change.
The current outbreak, which killed three people and destroyed more than 150 homes at the weekend, has been fanned by an unprecedented combination of high temperatures and strong winds.
Most of the emergency warnings issued by authorities on Tuesday, including the South Turramurra fire 20 km (12 miles) north of central Sydney, told affected residents they must seek cover and that it was too late to flee their homes.
In the small town of Wauchope, 400 km (250 miles) north of Sydney, residents moved hundreds of livestock to the central showground as fires approached.
“We have at least 350 horses, maybe more. They are still coming, we have cattle and sheep and chooks (chickens) and dogs and pigs, you name it,” said Neil Coombes, president of the Wauchope Show Society.
Coombes, who lives about 10 km (6 miles) outside town, said he would likely lose his home because it was in the anticipated path of the fire.
“My wife went home earlier and said, ‘is there anything you want me to get?’,” Coombes said.
“I said, ‘yes, I want you back here with me.’ If the house burns it burns, but I can’t replace her,” he said.
Authorities expect the dangerous conditions again on Friday and through the weekend.
The worst of the weather was not expected until later in the evening or closer to nightfall, with temperatures forecast to reach 37 degrees Celsius (98.6 degrees Fahrenheit), along with strong winds.
Firefighters are closely watching a blaze in greater Sydney, especially as aircraft operations will be grounded at night leaving people on the ground to deal with fires.
In Sydney, home to five million people, health authorities urged people with respiratory issues to stay indoors because the city was covered by a “hazardous” smoky haze. Around 600 schools and colleges were closed across the state.
NSW Education Minister Sarah Mitchell said nine public schools across the state’s north were evacuated.
“Safety is first and we need to evacuate to get the children out of there,” Mitchell told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
The fires also forced organisers to cancel the season-ending Rally of Australia, which pitted Hyundai against Toyota.
The danger was not quite as great in Queensland. The threat level there was pegged at “severe”, two levels below the “catastrophic” conditions in NSW. Still, some 55 fires were burning across the northern state on Tuesday afternoon.
The current threat has sharpened attention on the policies of Australia’s conservative government to address climate change, which meteorologists have said was extending the length of the fire weather season.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison, a vocal supporter of Australia’s coal industry, has declined to answer questions about whether the current fires were a result of climate change.
“The government says this isn’t the time to talk about climate change – I completely disagree, we should have been talking about this years ago,” said Carol Sparks, the mayor of Glen Innes, north of Sydney, where two people were killed at the weekend.
“We are overwhelmed with the intensity of this fire and climate change is responsible,” she said.
Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack sparked a heated debate on Monday when he accused climate activists, whom he called “woke capital city greenies”, of politicising a tragedy.