“I’ve lived here 50 years, and this is the worst I’ve seen.”
So stated one elderly Harrington resident, as he and his wife evacuated their home in New South Wales, Australia. Nearby, the fire front in the Crowdy Bay National Park appeared to go on forever.
At least 28 people have died and more than 2,200 homes have been destroyed as an unprecedented number of bushfires continue to burn out of control across the Australian states of Queensland and New South Wales. More than 130 separate blazes have already consumed more than 14.7 million acres of farmland and bush.
And the summer fire season is just beginning in the Land Down Under.
Men, women, families and family pets all beat a hasty retreat as federal officials declared a state of emergency and urged thousands of residents to evacuate ahead of the inferno.
More than 2,700 firefighters have been pushed to their absolute limit. Paul Baxter, Commissioner of Fire and Rescue NSW, was candid in his assessment of the situation:
“You need to know that, once the fire gets to an emergency alert level, we may not be able to get to help you. We haven’t got the resources to put into every single area. So you must be prepared to survive yourself.”
Australia’s native eucalyptus forests are compounding the danger.
That’s because the oil produced by these trees – which gives them their characteristic spicy fragrance – is highly flammable when vaporized, causing the trees to burst into balls of fire.
“It’s very, very terrifying,” said Carol Sparks, mayor of Glen Innes, a picturesque town about 400 miles north of Sydney.
Fueled by the worst drought in decades, things could get much worse, as temperatures are forecast in the triple digits over much of the region. Chance of rain is slim, but the lightning from numerous “dry thunderstorms” continues to ignite more bushfires.
Amidst all this, Sydney – the country’s largest city and home to more than five million people – is growing dangerously short on water. Experts say dams could run dry by 2022, and increased water restrictions are expected to be imposed within the next few months.
In fact, the current drought has resulted in desperate water shortages across large parts of the Australia’s entire east coast. Dams in some parts of western NSW have all but dried up. “The lack of water, of course, is a huge problem,” said Mayor Sparks. “So we’ve had to ship in water tanks to deal with [the fires].”
Most of the bushfires have been naturally caused by lightning. But others resulted when Australians ignored total fire bans currently in effect.
And then there’s the smoke, which has pushed Sydney’s air quality to beyond “hazardous” levels. In fact, parts of the city measured air pollution levels at ten times higher than the national benchmark.
One resident said he was “choking on smoke.” and another tweeted:
“Woke up at 5 a.m. because my brain was trying to tell me I was in danger. I could smell smoke. I can still taste smoke. The fire is 100 miles away. We can barely see 100 metres in Sydney today.”
Many residents were being treated for respiratory issues, as health officials advised people to stay indoors and avoid physical activity. The combination of heavy smoke and extreme heat prompted health officials to prepare for the worst.
Featured Image: Creative Commons Photo by 80 trading 24