17 lives lost and 5.9 million hectares scorched in Australia since crisis began

CANBERRA-Throughout the final months of 2019, Australia experienced its most destructive bushfire season ever recorded.

In the worst-hit state of New South Wales, or NSW, nine people were confirmed dead in November and December, close to 1,000 homes were lost and more than 3.6 million hectares of wilderness were burned.

In late December, another person was killed by fires in South Australia state, with homes, property and thousands of hectares of bushland lost there as well.

The world took note. Not least at the news that thousands of koalas had likely perished across Australia-a shocking symbol of the toll the disaster was taking on the country as a whole.

In the new year, Australians remained on high alert and, with many months of summer left to go, tensions were high as they braced for what might come next.

On New Year’s Eve, the crisis escalated once more, both in NSW and neighboring Victoria state.

With soaring winds and temperatures fanning flames, thousands of people fled to the coast, taking shelter on beaches where they felt the safest.

Several rural towns were badly hit and residents could do little but try to escape as flames consumed entire communities. NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons confirmed that 382 homes were destroyed on New Year’s Eve.

Around 50 homes were also confirmed to have been lost in Victoria-a number expected to significantly increase as assessment crews further accessed affected areas.

Already the total number of homes destroyed by bushfires this season is more than 1,400.

Rather than popping champagne, many Australians spent the last day of the decade in fear for their lives. The town of Batemans Bay was cut off by fires and residents were forced to spend the night by the water surrounded by fire.

As the new year dawned, five more people were confirmed dead in southern NSW. They had either been trying to defend their homes, or flee the vicious inferno.

In Victoria state’s East Gippsland region, another person was found dead at home, taking the overall death toll this season to 17.

Images emerged on social media of residents escaping by boat against a deep red daytime sky, and again the world was shocked by the severity of the fires.

4,000 trapped

Military ships and helicopters were called in to rescue those still stranded near the ocean, including at the popular holiday destination of Mallacoota beach, where an estimated 4,000 people had taken shelter.

On Wednesday evening, the NSW Rural Fire Service issued an order for tourists to vacate a roughly 250-kilometer stretch of the NSW South Coast, another popular summer getaway. By Thursday morning, giant queues had formed of people trying to buy fuel, food and water in order to make their way home.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison urged calm and patience from those caught up in the disaster and insisted that everything possible was being done to make the evacuation process as smooth as possible.

“We cannot control the natural disaster but what we can do is control our response,” Morrison said.

“What we can do is support those who are out there putting themselves at risk by showing the patience and the calm that is necessary.”

However, not everybody could be reached. Scorched infrastructure meant that in many places phone and internet services were down, restricting normal lines of communication.

Of the fires in East Gippsland, where 17 people have been declared missing, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews told reporters: “These are very challenging circumstances.” “For this many people cut off from services is not something we would normally experience.

“We do hold very significant fears for the welfare of anybody who is missing at this time.”

A combined 500,000 hectares have been burned across East Gippsland after three major fires merged.

Nationwide, almost 5.9 million hectares have burned since the crisis began last year.

While conditions offered some reprieve on Wednesday and Thursday, forecasts pointed to a return of extreme fire danger by the end of the week.

“Fire dangers on Saturday will reach severe to extreme yet again across fire sites and communities that have already seen large-scale devastation,” Bureau of Meteorology scientist Jonathan How said.

“As the heat and wind returns, so does the danger,” he said.

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