Serena Williams was sensationally knocked out of the Australian Open third round by China’s Wang Qiang on Friday, torpedoing her bid for a record-equalling 24th Grand Slam crown.
Williams, 38, was the bookies’ favourite to win an eighth title at Melbourne Park but she came unstuck against a determined Wang, who took only one game off the American last time they met.
The 6-4, 6/7 (2/7), 7-5 upset means Williams, whose last Major win was at the 2017 Australian Open when she was pregnant, has fallen short at eight Grand Slams since returning from having a baby in 2018.
Three American crew helping to battle Australia’s devastating bushfires were killed Thursday when their water-bombing plane crashed in mountainous terrain during a sortie to tackle another outbreak of the deadly blazes.
Officials said the Hercules C-130 plane erupted in a large fireball on impact in a national park the Snowy Mountains shortly before 1:30 pm (0230 GMT).
The cause of the crash was not immediately known, but New South Wales Rural Fire Service commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons had said earlier in the day that high winds were making flying the water tankers “very difficult”.
“We’ve got a number of firefighters and a number of crew that are in the area and working to contain and work around the fire,” Fitzimmons said.
The incident brought the death toll in Australia’s bushfires to at least 32 since the crisis began in September.
The highly experienced US firefighting trio was working for Canadian firm Coulson Aviation, which had been contracted to help fight the fires.
State Premier Gladys Berejiklian said the crash highlighted the danger faced by firefighters as they attempted to extinguish massive blazes across Australia’s southeast.
“There are in excess of 70 aircraft that have been used today alone and today is a stark and horrible reminder of the dangerous conditions that our volunteers, (and) our emergency services personnel… (face) on a daily basis,” she said.
The crash happened as at least seven fires, whipped up by scorching temperatures and strong winds, flared to emergency status following a brief lull brought by rain and cooler temperatures.
Bushfires also forced the closure of Canberra Airport Thursday, with all flights in and out of the country’s capital suspended to allow the deployment of aerial firefighting crews to battle the approaching flames.
Temperatures soared to 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) in Sydney, where a bushfire also broke out in a northwestern suburb of Australia’s biggest city.
Wind gusts had been forecast to reach 90 kilometres per hour (55 miles per hour) in some areas, but Fitzsimmons said the winds were stronger than expected, especially in the fire-ravaged southeast.
Unprecedented bushfires fuelled by climate change have devastated vast swathes of the country since September, destroying more than 2,000 homes and burning 10 million hectares (100,000 square kilometres) of land — an area larger than South Korea or Portugal.
Scientists estimate that one billion animals have died in fires, which environmental groups say have driven many species closer to extinction.
The blazes have been followed by extreme weather that has hampered clean-up operations in some areas, including intense storms that have battered parts of Australia with giant hail, floods and landslides.
Heavy rainfall has helped to contain and, in some cases, extinguish long-running blazes but an expected return to searing heat and gusting winds Thursday was flagged as a cause for concern as dozens of fires continued to burn.
Cooler weather was forecast to return on Friday, but the bushfire season still has weeks left to run.
Coulson Aviation, which owned the crashed Hercules, said it had grounded operations of its other large air tankers “pending review” of the aircraft.
The company said it was “deeply saddened” to confirm the three fatalities, adding it would send a team to the crash site to assist in emergency operations.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of the three crew members onboard,” the Coulson family said in a statement.
The months-long bushfire crisis has sparked renewed calls for Australia’s conservative government to take immediate action on climate change, with street protests urging Prime Minister Scott Morrison to reduce the country’s reliance on coal.
A major coal conference in Wollongong — situated in a coal-producing region south of Sydney that has been hit by massive blazes — was cancelled this week in response to what local climate activists said was a “planned mass protest”.
Thunderstorms and giant hail battered parts of Australia’s east coast on Monday after “apocalyptic” dust storms swept across drought-stricken areas, as extreme weather patterns collided in the bushfire-fatigued country.
Australia has since October been overwhelmed by an unprecedented bushfire season made worse by climate change.
Swathes of the country have burned, hundreds of millions of animals have died, more than 2,000 homes have been destroyed and at least 29 lives have been lost.
Violent hail storms pelted the capital Canberra on Monday, with footage showing the storm ripping branches off trees.
Emergency services were warning people there to “move cars undercover and away from trees and power lines”.
The bureau of meteorology told people in the southeast of New South Wales, including Sydney, to brace for the approaching storm.
“Severe thunderstorms are likely to produce damaging, locally destructive winds, large, possibly giant hailstones and heavy rainfall that may lead to flash flooding in the warning area over the next several hours,” the bureau said.
Two people visiting the popular tourist destination the Blue Mountains were taken to hospital when a 16-year-old boy was hit by lightning and a 24-year-old man suffered injuries while leaning on a nearby metal railing.
“These people are extremely lucky to be alive,” Ambulance New South Wales duty manager Greg Marshall said in a statement.
“One centimetre either way and they would have faced a direct hit which could’ve been fatal.”
They both remain in hospital in a stable condition.
‘Like an apocalyptic movie’
Dramatic images captured over the weekend from western New South Wales show a massive wall of dust rolling through outback towns. Locals reported being cast into darkness in the middle of the day.
“We are used to the ritual and rush of bringing in the washing, turning air-cons off, closing windows and doors, before a big dust storm hits,” Ashleigh Hull from the rural town of Dubbo told AFP.
This one was “more spectacular” than the typical dust storm, she added.
“It was honestly like an apocalyptic movie, a huge wave coming towards us, really quite impressive, but I just wish it actually brought a good amount of rain, not dust.”
The southern city of Melbourne was also lashed by huge hailstones late Sunday.
In Victoria, where bushfires continue to smoulder, heavy rainfall overnight was welcomed in fire grounds in the north, but authorities said it also brought with it new dangers.
State Premier Daniel Andrews said the rain meant “much more dangerous conditions” for those operating heavy machinery to get into areas damaged by bushfires, while landslides complicated efforts to open up closed roads.
The wet weather has brought a reprieve for many fire grounds along the east coast, but authorities remain on high alert, warning that the bushfire season still has weeks to run.
Experts expect Australia to lose billions of dollars in tourism revenue as a result of the fires.
The government over the weekend announced a Aus$76 million (US$52 million) recovery package to aid in the tourism recovery.
The number of travellers booking visits to Australia has fallen 10-20 percent since the fires began in September.
Tourism Australia was forced to suspend an upbeat advertising campaign launched in the middle of the crisis featuring pop star Kylie Minogue after the ad was met with incredulity about what many saw as poor timing.
“This is one of the biggest, if not the biggest — I would say the biggest — challenge the tourism industry has had in living memory,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Monday.
Australia’s conservative government has come under intense criticism for its response to the fires and climate change, which scientists say is a major contributing factor to the crisis.
Bushfire smoke disrupted the Australian Open build-up Wednesday for a second straight day to deepen concerns about the fate of the year’s first tennis Grand Slam, but a cool change late in the day raised hopes of rain soaking the blazes.
The toxic haze that descended on Melbourne, where the Australian Open is due to begin next week, drifted down from out-of-control fires that have endured for months in eastern and southern Australia.
The bushfires, unprecedented in their duration and intensity, have claimed 28 lives while raising awareness about the type of disasters that scientists say the world will increasingly face due to global warming.
In Melbourne, a picturesque bayside city famed as one of the most liveable in the world, the bushfire smoke raised pollution levels to “hazardous” at the start of the week.
The bleak conditions continued on Wednesday, with residents donning face masks while dozens of flights were cancelled at Melbourne airport because of poor visibility.
Australian Open organisers pushed ahead with qualifying rounds on Tuesday.
But dramatic scenes of players dropping to their knees and choking, and one retiring due to the smoke, led to complaints about them being forced to stay out on court.
With the air still tasting and smelling of smoke on Wednesday morning, organisers suspended qualifying rounds until 1:00 pm (0200 GMT) on Wednesday.
Racing Victoria also cancelled two horse race meetings on Wednesday.
With the pollution levels improving slightly, Australian Open organisers restarted play on Wednesday afternoon under better but still hazy conditions.
Thundery weather then swept in late on Wednesday afternoon, bringing heavy rain that forced play to be cancelled for the day but raised expectations of clearer air for Thursday.
There were also hopes that the rain would extend to other parts of southern and eastern Australia where dozens of fires are still raging out of control and threatening to devastate many more rural towns.
Some bushfire and drought-hit areas could see 50-100 millimetres (2-4 inches) of rain, the Bureau of Meteorology said.
However it said the “hit and miss” nature of thunderstorms meant it was difficult to predict exactly where the heaviest rain would fall.
The fires have already destroyed more than 2,000 homes and burnt 10 million hectares (100,000 square kilometres) of land — an area larger than South Korea or Portugal.
The confirmed death toll rose to 28 on Wednesday when authorities said they had confirmed a firefighter who died in late November in a traffic incident had at the time been trying to contain a blaze.
The fires have dominated headlines around the world and led to an international outpouring of aid for victims, as well as animals that have been injured in the blazes.
About one billion animals may have died in the fires and driven many species closer to extinction, according to environmental groups.
Australia’s koala population has taken an “extraordinary hit” and could be listed as endangered for the first time, Environment Minister Sussan Ley has said.
In Melbourne, the smoke has raised the prospect of interruptions and delays for the two-week Australian Open, which is due to begin on Monday.
Slovenian Dalila Jakupovic was forced to retire while leading in her qualifying match on Tuesday because of the smoke.
“I was really scared that I would collapse,” she said.
Other players, including world number five Elina Svitolina, hit out at organisers for allowing qualifying to go ahead on Tuesday.
“Why do we need to wait for something bad to happen to do an action,” she tweeted.
Climate change debate
Meanwhile, a debate about the attitudes of Australia’s political and media establishment to climate change continued on Wednesday with a rare intervention from one of Rupert Murdoch’s sons.
James Murdoch hit out at his father’s media empire, which includes the News Corp group that dominates Australia’s press landscape as well as Fox News in the US, for climate change “denial”.
“They are particularly disappointed with the ongoing denial among the news outlets in Australia given obvious evidence to the contrary,” said a statement from James and his wife, Kathryn.
Helicopter-borne marksmen killed more than 5,000 camels in a five-day cull of feral herds that were threatening indigenous communities in drought-stricken areas of southern Australia, officials said Tuesday.
Aboriginal leaders in South Australia state said extremely large herds of the non-native camels had been driven towards rural communities by drought and extreme heat, threatening scarce food and drinking water, damaging infrastructure, and creating a dangerous hazard for drivers.
The cull in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands — home to about 2,300 indigenous people in the arid northwest of South Australia — ended on Sunday, said APY general manager Richard King.
“We appreciate the concerns of animal rights activists, but there is significant misinformation about the realities of life for non-native feral animals, in what is among the most arid and remote places on Earth,” King said in a statement on Tuesday.
“As custodians of the land, we need to deal with an introduced pest in a way that protects valuable water supplies for communities and puts the lives of everyone, including our young children, the elderly, and native flora and fauna first.”
King said weakened camels frequently became stuck and died in water holes, contaminating water sources needed by locals and native animals and birds.
“The prolonged dry period, while not difficult for native wildlife, leads to extreme distress for feral camels,” he said.
APY officials said the operation had removed more than 5,000 camels.
The cull came as Australia experienced its hottest and driest year on record in 2019, with the severe drought causing some towns to run out of water and fuelling deadly bushfires that have devastated the country’s southeast.
Camels were first introduced to Australia in the 1840s to aid in the exploration of the continent’s vast interior, with up to 20,000 imported from India in the six decades that followed.
Australia is now thought to have the largest wild camel population in the world, with official estimates suggesting more than one million are roaming the country’s inland deserts.
The animals are considered a pest, as they foul water sources and trample native flora while foraging for food over vast distances each day.
Traditional owners in the APY Lands have for years mustered and sold off feral camels.
But more recently they have “been unable to manage the scale and number of camels that congregate in dry conditions”, according to the environment department.
Exhausted firefighters said they had finally brought Australia’s largest “megablaze” under control Monday, as wet weather promised to deliver much-needed respite for countryside ravaged by bushfires.
New South Wales firefighters said they finally had the upper hand in the fight against the vast Gospers Mountain fire on Sydney’s northwestern outskirts, which has been burning for almost three months.
Visiting the area on Monday, New South Wales Rural Fire Service commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said there was a “small area of burning still to complete” but the “containment prognosis looks promising”.
The fire seared an area of national park three times the size of Greater London and lit several connected blazes totalling over 800,000 hectares.
As residents and authorities continued to come to grips with the sheer scale of the devastation, the Bureau of Meteorology forecast some firegrounds areas could get up to 50 millimetres (two inches) of rain in the next week, a relief after a prolonged drought.
If that forecast bears out, the New South Wales Rural Fire Service said it would be “all of our Christmas, birthday, engagement, anniversary, wedding and graduation presents rolled into one. Fingers crossed.”
Dozens of other fires are yet to be controlled.
The climate-change-fuelled fires have prompted an international outpouring and donations from around the world to help communities and animal populations.
Australia’s unique flora and fauna has taken a catastrophic hit, with an estimated one billion animals killed, and countless trees and shrubs burned away.
The country’s environment minister Sussan Ley has warned that in some areas, koalas may have to be reclassified as endangered.
The government has earmarked an initial $50 million (US$35 million) to spend on helping with the wildlife recovery.
“This has been an ecological disaster, a disaster that is still unfolding,” Treasurer Josh Frydenberg announcing the emergency fund.
This weekend, Sydney will host a charity gig to benefit fire services, the Red Cross and animal welfare organisations.
Headliners include Alice Cooper, Olivia Newton-John and Queen.
The political impact of the bushfires is also coming into sharper relief.
A poll released Monday showed Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s approval ratings have nosedived in the face of widespread anger over his handling of the deadly crisis.
The Newspoll survey showed 59 percent of Australian voters are dissatisfied with the conservative leader’s performance overall, and only 37 percent were satisfied, an abrupt reversal since his shock election win last May.
Morrison has been criticised heavily for his response to the months-long crisis — which included going on holiday to Hawaii, making a series of gaffes and misleading statements about his government’s actions, and forcing angry victims to shake his hand.
Morrison began the crisis insisting local authorities had enough resources to handle the fires and exhausted volunteers firefighters “want to be there”.
He also repeatedly stated that Australia was doing more than enough to meet its emission reduction targets, prompting a series of large-scale street protests.
Seeing a backlash, Morrison has since deployed the military, launched the largest peacetime call up of reserves, pledged billions of dollars in aid, increased payments to firefighters, and suggested more work may need to be done on emissions.
Reserve troops fanned out across fire-ravaged regions in three Australian states on Monday after a horror weekend, as the government pledged $1.4 billion over two years to help recover from the devastating months-long crisis.
Catastrophic bushfires have turned swathes of land into smouldering, blackened hellscapes and destroyed an area about the size of the island of Ireland, according to official figures, with authorities warning the disaster still has weeks or months to run.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison, whose government has been criticised for its slow response to the emergency, pledged Aus$2 billion ($1.4 billion) of taxpayer money for a national recovery fund.
“It’s a long road ahead and we will be with these communities every step of the way as they rebuild,” Morrison said.
Firefighters joined by fresh teams from the US and Canada were taking advantage of rainy and cooler conditions to tackle out-of-control blazes ahead of rising temperatures forecast later this week.
In the biggest-ever call up of reserves, military teams were deployed across eastern Australia to help emergency services assess the damage, restore power and deliver supplies of food, water and fuel to cut-off communities.
For the first time in Australian history the government also deployed its medical assistance team — normally sent to other nations to lend support in the aftermath of their disasters — to help evacuees.
“There is no room for complacency, especially as we have over 130 fires burning across (New South Wales) state still,” Premier of New South Wales state Gladys Berejiklian said on Monday.
Almost five million hectares (50,000 square kilometres) have been razed across New South Wales and more than 1.2 million hectares in Victoria since late September, officials said.
That took the total amount of land burnt close to eight million hectares — around the size of the island of Ireland or South Carolina.
Twenty-four people have lost their lives so far, with over 1,800 homes damaged.
Two people are missing in New South Wales, the nation’s most populous state.
In Victoria, Premier Daniel Andrews established a bushfire recovery agency to help devastated towns. It will be a permanent body, he said, as intense fires will become commonplace.
“We should just be honest about the fact that we’re going to see more and more fires, more and more damage as each fire season comes… this is the new normal,” Andrews told reporters.
The chair of the newly established Victoria state’s bushfire appeal fund, Pat McNamara, added that this year’s summer bushfire season was a “creeping disaster”.
“We’re still not even into what we would regard as the peak of the fire season,” McNamara told national broadcaster ABC.
In the usually picturesque southeastern town of Eden, Holly Spence said she spent more than 12 hours defending her family’s farm on Saturday, less than a week after saving it on New Year’s Eve.
“We don’t want to go through this for a third time,” the 28-year-old told AFP.
Fiona Kennelly, 50, who evacuated with 24 members of her extended family to a motel outside Eden, said she was relieved the easing conditions allowed them to get some respite from the crisis.
“It’s good to see daylight at the right time again,” she told AFP, adding that the skies had been turning pitch-black in the afternoons.
The impact of the bushfires has spread beyond affected communities, with heavy smoke engulfing the country’s second-largest city Melbourne and the national capital Canberra.
Some government departments were shut in Canberra as the city’s air quality was once-again ranked the world’s poorest, according to independent online air-quality index monitor Air Visual.
The disaster has sparked growing public anger with Morrison. Rallies are planned on Friday to call on his government to step up efforts to tackle climate change, which experts say have helped fuel the fires.
In Los Angeles, Hollywood superstar Russell Crowe said he was back home fighting the fires and that the disaster was “climate change-based”.
“We need to act on science, move our global workforce to renewable energy and respect our planet for the unique and amazing place it is. That way, we all have a future,” he said in a message read out by Jennifer Aniston.
Australian actress Cate Blanchett praised the volunteer firefighters battling the blazes, adding: “When one country faces a climate disaster, we all face a climate disaster. We’re in it together.”
A global appeal to help Australian firefighters tackling catastrophic bushfires raised more than Aus$25 million on Monday, as swaths of the country suffered extensive damage and the death toll from the long-running crisis hit 24.
East coast seaside towns were plunged into darkness, ash rained down on rural communities and major cities were again cloaked in choking smoke, even as stunned Australians tried to regroup amid a wave of cooler air and light rain.
The weekend marked some of the worst days in the country’s deadly bushfire crisis, with hundreds more properties destroyed and the overall death toll climbing to 24, including a man who died Saturday trying to save a friend’s home.
Comedian Celeste Barber used her international social media fame to launch a Facebook fundraiser for firefighters that had surpassed its Aus$25 million ($17 million) target in just three days with donations from all over the globe.
American pop star Pink said she would donate US$500,000 to the firefighters, a donation matched by Australian actress Nicole Kidman.
World number one tennis player Ashleigh Barty pledged to hand over all her winnings from this week’s Brisbane International tournament — potentially US$250,000 — to the Red Cross.
Around 200 fires continued to burn Sunday, many out of control, although only a handful prompted emergency warnings as temperatures dipped.
Everywhere, millions of beleaguered residents struggled to come to grips with a catastrophe that has taken place on a near-continental scale, unfurled over months, altering daily life.
“We’re in uncharted territory,” New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian said. “We can’t pretend that this is something that we have experienced before. It’s not.”
Authorities have struggled to keep pace with the severity of the crisis — which has now scorched an area almost the size of Ireland.
While bushfires are common in Australia’s dry summers, climate change has pushed up land and sea temperatures and led to more extremely hot days and severe fire seasons.
Decades to recover
Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Saturday announced the country’s largest military call-up in years, mobilising up to 3,000 reservists to assist exhausted volunteer firefighters.
Warships and combat helicopters have already been repurposed to help with the largest maritime evacuation in Australia since World War II — moving to safety some of the 4,000 people trapped for days on the foreshore of Mallacoota, midway between Sydney and Melbourne.
Up and down the coast, thousands of people remained displaced and many more weighed an uncertain future.
Noreen Ralston-Birchaw, 75, lost her home in the southeast coastal town of Mogo on New Year’s Eve and said she was unsure what to do.
“At this very moment, I don’t want to go back and see my house laying burnt on the ground,” she told AFP. “I don’t want to rebuild there.”
Morrison also announced the establishment of a Bushfire Recovery Agency to run for at least two years and help survivors get back on their feet, a signal that the path ahead will be long and difficult.
Even for those not in the fires’ direct path, the crisis has put Australia’s much-admired outdoor lifestyle on hold: barbecues have been barred under blanket fire bans, top sporting events have been called off and beach trips cancelled.
The country’s distinctive flora and fauna will take years or decades to recover — countless thousands of gum trees have been lost and experts on Kangaroo Island said half the koala population has been wiped out.
Queen Elizabeth II on Sunday said she was “deeply saddened” by the fires, and thanked the emergency services “who put their own lives in danger” to help communities.
Sunday brought milder conditions, including some rainfall in New South Wales and neighbouring Victoria state, but some communities were still under threat from out-of-control blazes, particularly in and around the town of Eden in New South Wales near the Victorian border.
“The sky is still red,” said John Steele, 73, who was evacuated with his wife from their rural property north of Eden late Saturday. “We’re not out of the woods yet.”
In Cooma, in inland southern New South Wales, the fire crisis turned into a flood disaster when a large tower carrying 4.5 million litres of water collapsed, sweeping away cars and filling homes with mud.
“First bushfire and now flood, back-to-back disasters,” a shaken resident who asked not to be named told AFP.
Australia’s capital Canberra was ranked as the city with the poorest air quality in the world on Sunday by Air Visual, an independent online air-quality index monitor, amid a severe haze caused by the fires.
Flights were cancelled, galleries were closed to safeguard public health and a large consignment of face masks was being brought in.
In some rural areas affected by fires, police patrolled the streets amid reports of looting and break-ins.
Skies turned black and ash rained down as fires raged across southeastern Australia on Saturday, threatening power supplies to major cities and prompting the call-up of 3,000 military reservists.
Temperature records were smashed, and gale-force winds pounded fire-stricken coastal communities in the two most populous states New South Wales and Victoria.
New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian warned that worst-case scenario projections were “coming to fruition”, although large-scale evacuations meant the human toll was minimised.
Since late September, 23 people have died, more than 1,500 homes have been damaged and an area roughly twice the size of Belgium or Hawaii has burned.
The latest fatalities were in Kangaroo Island — a tourist haven southwest of Adelaide — when two people were trapped in a car overrun by flames on Friday.
But strong winds and high temperatures continued to fuel hundreds of fires and cause chaos.
Bushfires took out two substations and transmission lines, prompting authorities in New South Wales that an area home to almost eight million people and the nation’s largest city Sydney could experience rolling blackouts.
“We are in for a long night and we have still to hit the worst of it,” Berejiklian warned as another total fire ban was declared for Sunday.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced the largest military call-up in living memory, mobilising 3,000 reservists to assist thousands of volunteer firefighters who have been battling the blazes.
“Today’s decision puts more boots on the ground, puts more planes in the sky, puts more ships at sea,” said Morrison, who made the announcement after being pilloried for his response to the deadly disaster.
A state of emergency had been declared across much of the heavily populated southeast and more than 100,000 people were told to leave their homes across three states.
Thousands heeded that call on Friday, abandoning summer holidays and piling into cars that clogged the highways linking southeastern coastal towns with the relative safety of Sydney or larger towns.
Several emergency warnings were issued on Saturday, and there were fears one one blaze southwest of Sydney could reach the city’s outskirts.
Sydney recorded its highest-ever temperature of 48.9 degrees Celsius (120 degrees Fahrenheit) in the western suburb of Penrith, and the nation’s capital Canberra hit 44 degrees Celsius, also an all-time record, a Bureau of Meteorology spokesman said.
Thousands of volunteer firefighters battled the infernos as some residents stayed behind to defend their homes.
Just outside the seaside town of Batemans Bay, a four-hour drive south of Sydney, locals joined forces with firefighters to tackle the fires.
“Today, we’ve had nothing short of a disaster. A very large fire-front came through… the high temperatures and the southernly change is putting a real lot of pressure on the resources that we have,” local Adam Pike told AFP.
“Guys that know the bush, guys that know fire, helped save at least 10 to 12 homes on this street… we are so grateful for their help.”
The only activity in the usually bustling tourist hotspot was at an evacuation centre, where hundreds of locals forced from their homes were sheltering on an open field in tents and caravans.
Mick Cummins, 57, and his wife fled to the evacuation centre when fire ripped through his rural town on New Year’s Eve.
“We said this is too tough for us, let’s get out. We went to the beach and then hellfire came over the hill,” he told AFP.
“I was here in the ’94 fires. I thought that was bad. That was just a barbeque” in comparison, he said.
Beleaguered Australian communities braced for yet more catastrophic bushfire conditions expected on Saturday, as Australia’s navy evacuated around one thousand people from a southeastern town.
In the town of Mallacoota, residents and tourists hemmed to the foreshore since New Year’s Eve fires clambered aboard landing craft with family, pets and a few belongings.
By late Friday, around 1,000 had been taken to the HMAS Choules and the MV Sycamore, which were to sail down the coast to safety.
The scale of Australia’s unprecedented months-long bushfire crisis has shocked the country and the world.
Since late September, at least 20 people have died, dozens have gone missing, more than 1,300 homes have been damaged and an area roughly double the size of Belgium or Hawaii has burned.
But experts predict Saturday could bring even more devastating conditions with temperatures expected to rise well above 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit).
A state of emergency has been declared across much of Australia’s heavily populated southeast and more than 100,000 people have been told to leave their homes across three states.
“There is still a window for people to leave,” said New South Wales premier Gladys Berejiklian. “If you don’t need to be in the area, you need to leave.”
Thousands of tourists, heeding that warning, abandoned their summer holidays on a popular 300-kilometre (190-mile) length of the southeastern coastline, prompting queues of cars stretching toward Sydney and Canberra.
On the road north of Nowra, families sat amid the haze in cars loaded with dogs, surfboards and bicycles, with traffic at a virtual standstill.
Eloise Givney, 26, escaped from the blazes with a police escort after she and a large group of family members spent four days isolated without power, phones or internet.
“The fire came within about 50 metres of us and we drove through fire, because there’s only one road in and one road out,” she told AFP, adding the flames soared 15 metres high on either side of the road.
“We’ve been stuck without power for four days now. We haven’t been able to feed the kids — we’ve got five kids with us — and we ran out of food about a day ago.”
New South Wales Transport Minister Andrew Constance called it the “largest evacuation of people out of the region ever”.
The Bureau of Meteorology’s Jonathan How said Saturday’s “conditions are set to mirror or even deteriorate beyond what we saw on New Year’s Eve.”
“Strong, dry westerly winds will cause ongoing fires to flare up yet again threatening communities that have already experienced widespread devastation.”
That front arrived in South Australia on Friday, prompting an emergency warning on Kangaroo Island where it threatens to consume an entire national park.
Facing vast fire fronts, volunteer firefighters have been struggling to cope.
Adam Harris, captain of the Rural Fire Service in Sussex Inlet — which was hit by the New Year’s Eve blazes and remained under threat — told AFP there were not enough fire crews on the ground.
“Every resource is being used, that’s the thing. There’s so much fire on the ground that you’ve got to use every resource. We don’t have enough trucks to be everywhere.”
Conservative Prime Minister Scott Morrison — who was pilloried for holidaying in Hawaii as the country was ablaze and resisting calls to pay exhausted firefighters — has come under renewed criticism for his handling of the crisis.
Visiting the hard-hit town of Cobargo, Morrison encountered a tearful young mother and a volunteer firefighter who both refused to shake his hand.
He returned to his motorcade amid a volley of swearing and abuse. “You won’t be getting any votes down here, buddy,” one resident yelled.
Morrison’s Liberal ally and local parliamentarian Andrew Constance told 7 News that “the locals probably gave him the welcome that he probably deserved”.
“The feeling is bloody raw.”
Morrison later acknowledged that “people are frustrated”.
“I understand how people are feeling and however they wish to respond is a matter for them,” he said. “I don’t take it personally.”
With no sign of a let-up in the fires, Morrison has cancelled a visit to India planned for January 13.
He had a telephone conversation Friday with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who conveyed his condolences and said he looked forward to welcoming Morrison to India “at a mutually convenient time later in the year,” the Indian foreign ministry said.
The crisis continued to touch cities like Sydney and Melbourne, where thick smoke has become the norm and fires have licked at suburban areas.
The blazes on Friday again shrouded Melbourne and Australia’s capital in smoke, forcing the Canberra International tennis tournament to be relocated.
“I just feel nervous. I feel uneasy,” Melbourne resident Tui Lyon told AFP.
“I don’t really feel like you can go about your daily business without having that feeling in your stomach –- just concern for loved ones and just completely overwhelmed by the smoke.”
Thousands of tourists have been given less than 48 hours to evacuate fire-ravaged coastal communities as Australia braces for a heatwave Saturday expected to fan deadly bushfires.
Catastrophic blazes ripped through swathes of the continent’s south-east on New Year’s Eve, killing at least eight people and stranding holidaymakers as seaside towns were ringed by flames.
The New South Wales (NSW) Rural Fire Service on Thursday morning declared a “tourist leave zone” stretching about 200 kilometres (124 miles) from the popular holiday spot of Bateman’s Bay along the usually picturesque south-east coast to neighbouring Victoria state, where people are also being urged to evacuate fire-threatened areas.
Visitors are being warned to leave before Saturday, which is forecast to bring gusting winds and temperatures soaring above 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit).
That weather will create dangerous fire conditions that officials say will be as bad — if not worse — than Tuesday, Australia’s deadliest day of fires in a months-long bushfire crisis.
Many tourists and residents spent two nights isolated with no electricity or telecommunications, and dwindling food supplies, before authorities on Thursday deemed some roads out of the region temporarily safe to use.
NSW Transport Minister Andrew Constance told public broadcaster ABC it would be the “largest evacuation of people out of the region ever”, with thousands preparing to leave ahead of another “terrible” day of fires.
NSW Rural Fire Service deputy commissioner Rob Rogers said firefighters were unable to extinguish or even control the raging blazes.
“The message is we’ve got so much fire in that area, we have no capacity to contain these fires,” he told ABC.
“We just need to make sure that people are not in front of them.”
But with food and fuel supplies reportedly running short in many centres, there were concerns some would remain trapped.
Authorities still have not been able to reach some rural communities, such as the town of Genoa in Victoria.
There are also mounting fears for five people still missing after the most recent blazes while the number of homes confirmed destroyed has topped 400, with that number expected to rise as firefighters reach devastated communities still isolated by flames.
Navy ships and military aircraft have been deployed alongside emergency crews to provide humanitarian relief and assess the damage.
This season’s blazes have killed at least 18 people, destroyed more than 1,000 homes and scorched about 5.5 million hectares (13.5 million acres) — an area bigger than Denmark or the Netherlands.
The unprecedented crisis has sparked street protests calling on the government to immediately act on climate change, which scientists say is creating a longer and more intense bushfire season.
Conservative Prime Minister Scott Morrison has come under increasing pressure for his actions, which included holidaying in Hawaii as the disaster unfolded and reiterating his support for Australia’s lucrative — but heavily polluting — coal mining industry.