Aus­tralia death toll rises

Death toll rises to at least 17, of­fi­cials say, as heat eases

Orlando Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - By Tris­tan Lavalette

Aus­tralia de­ploys its mil­i­tary to help com­mu­ni­ties rav­aged by wild­fires that have left at least 17 dead.

PERTH, Aus­tralia — Aus­tralia de­ployed mil­i­tary ships and air­craft Wed­nes­day to help com­mu­ni­ties rav­aged by apoc­a­lyp­tic wild­fires that have left at least 17 peo­ple dead na­tion­wide and sent thou­sands of res­i­dents and hol­i­day­mak­ers flee­ing to the shore­line.

Navy ships and mil­i­tary air­craft were bring­ing wa­ter, food and fuel to towns where sup­plies were de­pleted and roads were cut off by the fires. Au­thor­i­ties con­firmed three bod­ies were found Wed­nes­day at Lake Con­jola on the south coast of New South Wales, bring­ing the death toll in the state to 15.

More than 175 homes have been de­stroyed in the re­gion.

About 4,000 peo­ple in the coastal town of Mal­la­coota fled to the shore as winds pushed a fire to­ward their homes un­der a sky dark­ened by smoke and turned blood-red by flames.

Stranded res­i­dents and va­ca­tion­ers slept in their cars, and gas sta­tions and surf clubs trans­formed into evac­u­a­tion ar­eas. Dozens of homes burned be­fore winds changed di­rec­tion late Tues­day, spar­ing the rest of the town.

Vic­to­ria Emer­gency Com­mis­sioner An­drew Crisp told re­porters the Aus­tralian De­fence Force was mov­ing naval as­sets to Mal­la­coota on a sup­ply mis­sion that would last two weeks and he­li­copters would also fly in more fire­fight­ers be­cause roads were in­ac­ces­si­ble.

“I think that was our big­gest threat in terms of what are we do­ing with the chil­dren if we need to go in the wa­ter to pro­tect our­selves given the fact that they are only 1, 3 and 5,” tourist Kai Kirschbaum told ABC Aus­tralia. “If you’re a good swim­mer it doesn’t re­ally mat­ter if you have to be in the wa­ter for a longer time, but do­ing that with three kids that would have been, I think, a night­mare.”

Con­di­tions cooled Wed­nes­day, but the fire dan­ger re­mained very high across the state, where four peo­ple are miss­ing.

“We have three months of hot weather to come. We do have a dy­namic and a dan­ger­ous fire sit­u­a­tion across the state,” Crisp said.

In the New South Wales town of Con­jola Park, 89 prop­er­ties were con­firmed de­stroyed and cars were melted by Tues­day’s fires. More than 100 fires were still burn­ing in the state Wed­nes­day, though none were at an emer­gency level. Seven peo­ple have died this week, in­clud­ing a vol­un­teer fire­fighter, a man found in a burnt-out car and a fa­ther and son who died in their house.

Fire­fight­ing crews took ad­van­tage of eas­ing con­di­tions on Wed­nes­day to re­store power to crit­i­cal in­fra­struc­ture and con­duct some back burn­ing, be­fore con­di­tions were ex­pected to de­te­ri­o­rate Satur­day as high tem­per­a­tures and strong winds re­turn.

“There is ev­ery po­ten­tial that the con­di­tions on Satur­day will be as bad or worse than we saw yesterday,” New South Wales Ru­ral Fire Ser­vice Deputy Com­mis­sioner Rob Rogers said.

The early and dev­as­tat­ing start to Aus­tralia’s sum­mer wild­fires has led au­thor­i­ties to rate this sea­son the worst on record and reignited de­bate about whether Prime Min­is­ter Scott Mor­ri­son’s con­ser­va­tive gov­ern­ment has taken enough ac­tion on cli­mate change. Aus­tralia is the world’s largest ex­porter of coal and liq­ue­fied nat­u­ral gas, but Mor­ri­son re­jected calls last month to downsize Aus­tralia’s coal in­dus­try.

Mor­ri­son won a sur­prise third term in May. Among his gov­ern­ment’s pledges was to re­duce green­house gas emis­sions by 26% to 28% by 2030 — a mod­est fig­ure com­pared to the cen­ter-left op­po­si­tion Labor party’s pledge of 45%.

The leader of the minor Aus­tralian Greens party, Richard Di Natale, de­manded a royal com­mis­sion, the na­tion’s high­est form of in­quiry, on the wild­fire cri­sis.

“If he (Mor­ri­son) re­fuses to do so, we will be mov­ing for a par­lia­men­tary com­mis­sion of in­quiry with royal com­mis­sion-like pow­ers as soon as par­lia­ment re­turns,” Di Natale said in a state­ment.

About 12.35 mil­lion acres of land have burned na­tion­wide over the past few months, with at least 17 peo­ple dead and more than 1,000 homes de­stroyed.

Some com­mu­ni­ties can­celed New Year’s fire­works cel­e­bra­tions, but Syd­ney’s pop­u­lar dis­play over its iconic har­bor con­tro­ver­sially went ahead in front of more than a mil­lion revel­ers. The city was granted an ex­emp­tion to a to­tal fire­works ban in place there and else­where to pre­vent new wild­fires.

Smoke from the wild­fires meant Can­berra, the na­tion’s cap­i­tal, on Wed­nes­day had air qual­ity more than 21 times the haz­ardous rat­ing to be re­port­edly the worst in the world.

The smoke has also wafted across the Tas­man Sea and into New Zealand.

MATTHEW AB­BOTT/THE NEW YORK TIMES

A kan­ga­roo rushes past a burn­ing house Tues­day in Lake Con­jola. This fire sea­son has been one of the worst in Aus­tralia’s his­tory, with at least 17 peo­ple killed.

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