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Australia Wildfires: State Of Emergency Declared Over 'Catastrophic' Danger

A firefighter battles a wall of flames Friday in Woodford, New South Wales.
Dan Himbrechts

Scorched by days of unrelenting wildfires, parts of southeast Australia are facing "catastrophic fire danger." On Monday, officials declared a state of emergency for all of New South Wales, the country's most populous state.

"Catastrophic" conditions — the highest fire danger rating in the country — are expected to hit three areas in New South Wales, including the greater Sydney area. Residents were warned that homes cannot withstand this level of fires and that leaving early is the only way to survive.

"We don't know where the fires will flare up, but we do know when you have averages of 38 degrees [Celsius] and extremely windy conditions across the state that everybody has to be alert no matter where you are and we cannot allow complacency to creep in," the premier of New South Wales, Gladys Berejiklian, said in a press conference Monday.

The emergency declaration is in effect for a week and covers the entire state and its population of nearly 8 million. Hundreds of schools were closed on Monday in response to increased fire conditions and hazardous air quality levels.

New South Wales has experienced an extraordinary number of wildfires that have charred more than 2 million acres in recent weeks. On Friday, nearly 100 active fires raged, prompting one official to declare, "We've simply never had this number of fires burn in North South Wales at the same time."

At least three people have died and dozens more have been injured, raising echoes of 2009's Black Saturday disaster.

That series of wildfires in the state of Victoria is the deadliest on record in Australia: "173 people killed, thousands of homes destroyed," as Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons reminded people at Monday's news conference.

"As a result of that extraordinary, extraordinary tragedy, the nation united to re-label bush fire danger rankings, because what we saw was fires burning across Victoria were off the conventional scale," Fitzsimmons said. "We've got to keep reminding ourselves that 'catastrophic' is off the conventional scale."

The state of emergency declaration in New South Wales — which officials said was the first in more than six years — grants Fitzsimmons emergency powers. Those powers allow him to, among other things, "control and coordinate the allocation of government resources," "evacuate people from property" and "enter or take possession of property in the course of the emergency response."

Of the dozens of wildfires that continue to rage out of control, the largest is the Liberation Trail fire. As of Tuesday local time, it had engulfed more than 353,000 acres — about half the size of California's Yosemite National Park.

New South Wales isn't the only region threatened by wildfires. Speaking at a press conference Friday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the danger is high in other states and that a nationwide emergency meeting of fire officials had taken place earlier that day.

"We're expecting very similar conditions in Western Australia over the next few days," Morrison said. "We currently have 31 out of 37 districts in Western Australia in the high fire rating, and three of those will go to catastrophic in the days ahead."

Paolo Zialcita is an intern on NPR's News Desk.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.