The worst wildfires to ravage Australia in decades—already blamed for the deaths of at least 17 people—are expected to cause more damage over the weekend, as the country faces soaring temperatures and no rain in sight.
The fires have prompted authorities to announce a state of emergency in New South Wales, where the fires are concentrated, to cope with the dangers expected Saturday. On Thursday, the state’s premier, Gladys Berejiklian, warned in a news conference that many more people would likely have to flee their homes in the next few days. A large “tourist leave zone” has been declared in New South Wales, and according to the BBC, the resulting exodus has been called “the largest relocation out of the region ever.” Thousands already have evacuated from New South Wales and the neighboring state of Victoria this week.
Around 4,000 people in the popular tourist town of Mallacoota, Victoria, sought refuge at the beach on Monday after the fire overtook the town, and the Australian navy began evacuating them on Thursday. Some 800 were being rescued on a naval ship.
Citizens have started to express their frustration with what they see as the government’s inaction. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has faced criticism for suggesting that the fires were a result of “many other factors” besides climate change and insisting that Australia could not have taken any steps to mitigate climate change in a way that would have prevented the current situation. And as conditions in Australia worsened last month, he took his family on a vacation to Hawaii. As Morrison toured one fire-scarred town in New South Wales on Thursday, residents shouted insults at him and demanded better funding for rural fire crews.
The fires, sparked and fed by abnormally hot and arid conditions, began in October and now number more than 200. More than 1,200 homes have been destroyed, and more than 10 million acres have burned. At least 17 people are still missing.
According to Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology, this season has been the second driest period on record since 1902, and for the past few years, New South Wales has had below-average rainfall. The heat, too, has been severe: Australia experienced its hottest day on record in mid-December, with an average of 107.4 degrees across the continent. Temperatures are expected to exceed 112 degrees in parts of the country on Friday, according to the bureau. Experts warn that the country may see little relief for weeks or even months, as temperatures usually hit their highs in January and February, when Australia’s peak fire season typically begins.
Meanwhile, 39 American firefighters arrived in Melbourne on Thursday to assist with the efforts. Some 70 additional American and Canadian firefighters are set to arrive next week.