Travel warnings issued as fires ravage Australia

Saturday, 21 December 2019

Catastrophic fire warnings are in place across the Australian state of New South Wales (NSW), where firefighters are tackling more than 100 blazes.

Authorities have urged Christmas travellers to delay their journeys as conditions threaten to intensify the bushfire crisis.

Rising temperatures and strong winds are expected to worsen fires across three states on Saturday.

Three blazes around Sydney are burning at emergency level.

"We are asking everybody not to travel on roads anywhere near the vicinity of an active fire unless you absolutely have to," Gladys Berejiklian, premier of NSW, said at a news conference.

A combination of temperatures above 40C, low humidity and strong winds have worsened the struggle for the almost 10,000 emergency personnel mobilised to deal with the bushfires in NSW.

"They are the very worst of conditions. Given we have a landscape with so much active fire burning, you have a recipe for very serious concern and a very dangerous day," NSW Rural Fire Services Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said.

Two volunteer firefighters died on Thursday as they were tackling a large blaze near Sydney. Fires have also been ravaging the states of Victoria and South Australia, where two civilians died on Friday, the BBC reported.

Since September, Australia's bushfire emergency has killed eight people, destroyed more than 700 houses and scorched millions of hectares.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has faced criticism for going on holiday despite the severity of the bushfires.

What travel warnings have been issued?

The states of NSW and and South Australia are the focus of the travel warnings.

In NSW, several major roads and highways have been closed, including a section of the Princes Highway.

As of 16:30 (05:12 GMT), 24 roads and highways in NSW were affected by fire, according to a government website.

Roads have been closed in South Australia as well, with residents asked to monitor the government traffic website for updates.

"If members of the public attempt to enter the areas, they will be turned away, regardless of being property owners or business owners, due to specific safety reasons," a police official said.

Who are the victims?

Tributes have been paid to firefighters Geoffrey Keaton, 32, and Andrew O'Dwyer, 36, who died when their truck was hit by a falling tree near a fire front, causing it to roll off the road.

Three other firefighters who were also in the vehicle survived with minor injuries.

NSW fire commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said firefighters everywhere were grieving over the "huge loss" of the two young fathers, who were caught up in "the worst imaginable set of circumstances".

"[They] simply went out, doing a remarkable job, like all their colleagues, and like they have done year-in, year-out, and to not be coming home after their shift is a tremendous grief," he said.

South Australian Premier Steven Marshall said a person had been killed in Murraylands, when the car they were driving hit a tree. Another person died in the Charleston area of the Adelaide Hills, authorities said.

Why are people angry with the PM?

Mr Morrison was widely criticised after reports emerged that he was away on unannounced leave and rumoured to be in Hawaii.

Firefighters' union leader Leighton Drury said Australia was "seeing an absolute lack of leadership from this government and it is a disgrace".

Phrases such as #WhereisScoMo, #WhereTheBloodyHellAreYou - a reference to a famous tourism campaign he once oversaw - and #FireMorrison quickly trended online.

Criticism grew as a heatwave broke records across the country and exacerbated mammoth blazes, making the task even harder for exhausted firefighters - many of them volunteers.

In a statement, Mr Morrison apologised and said he would be "returning to Sydney as soon as can be arranged".