Forecasts of heavy rain offered hope Tuesday in the months-long battle to contain Australia’s unprecedented bushfires, but smoke lifted pollution levels in the nation’s second biggest city to among the worst in the world.
Cool weather over recent days has already given some respite for exhausted firefighters spread out across vast swathes of the country, with some of the biggest blazes now brought under control.
Optimism was further boosted on Tuesday with heavy rain forecast for some of the hotspots in the most populated eastern states of New South Wales and Victoria.
“It’s some pretty good news,” New South Wales Rural Fire Service commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said.
“We’ve been talking about it for months now, that January might see the first fall of decent rain, and that looks like what’s coming along over the next few days.”
However, dozens of fires remained out of control and, with many weeks of hot weather still expected throughout Australia’s summer, there was no suggestion the crisis would end soon.
Toxic smoke from the blazes also blew overnight into the Victorian capital of Melbourne, which is due to stage the Australian Open tennis tournament next week.
Pollution in Melbourne, which is normally ranked as among the world’s most liveable cities, was rated “hazardous”, with health authorities warning people to stay indoors.
Practice sessions for world number one Rafael Nadal and some of the other big names in tennis were suspended on Tuesday.
Qualifying rounds for the Australian Open were also delayed for a couple of hours, and the organisers’ decision to resume play late on Tuesday morning caused confusion and concern for some players.
Mandy Minella, the world number 140 from Luxembourg, voiced her opposition on Twitter.
“Shocked to see that qualifying matches have started @Australian Open, What about the health of all the people that have to work out there, especially the ballkids?” she tweeted.
Still, the hazy conditions were not expected to last all week in Melbourne, with a change in wind direction and the forecast wet weather over the coming days set to clear the air.
The bushfires have killed at least 27 people, 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.
Australia endures bushfires every summer.
However climate change and a prolonged drought have contributed to the current crisis, with the blazes starting much earlier than normal and lasting for far longer.
Australia experienced its driest and hottest year on record in 2019, with its highest average maximum temperature of 41.9 degrees Celsius (107.4 degrees Fahrenheit) recorded in mid-December.
The fires have prompted an outpouring of donations from around the world to help communities and devastated animal populations.
Environmental groups estimate one billion animals have been killed, many of them unique to Australia.
The country’s environment minister Sussan Ley has warned that in some areas, koalas may have to be reclassified as endangered.
Smoke from Australia bushfires reaches Brazil
Smoke from bushfires raging across Australia reached Brazil on Tuesday, an arm of the National Institute for Space Research said on Twitter.
Referring to satellite images, the agency’s Department of Remote Sensing said the smoke had arrived in Brazil’s southernmost state, Rio Grande do Sul.
Private meteorological company MetSul also tweeted about the arrival of a smoke cloud to Porto Alegre, the capital of Rio Grande do Sul, but emphasized that “the presence of smoke from Australia in the air is almost imperceptible, despite the satellite showing smoke in the atmosphere over the great Porto Alegre.”
Chile’s meteorological service said Monday that smoke from the fires was visible in Chile and Argentina.
That means the hazy cloud of smoke, sitting at about 6,000 meters (20,000 feet) in the air, traveled more than 12,000 kilometers (7,500 miles) to reach South America.
But the drifting smoke won’t negatively affect the health of the continent’s inhabitants, the Chilean service said.
Fires ravaging Australia since September have left 24 people dead and destroyed some eight million hectares (80,000 square kilometers) of land — an area the size of Ireland or the US state of South Carolina.
After a catastrophic weekend, Australian firefighters — supported by US and Canadian forces — welcomed rain and a drop in temperatures to boost their efforts early in the week before another heat wave is expected in the coming days.
Reserve troops have been deployed to help throughout the country, and the government has earmarked an initial Aus$2 billion ($1.4 billion) for a national recovery fund for devastated communities.
Tourists, firefighters flee as new heatwave fans Australia blazes
Tourists and firefighters were forced to flee vast fires burning in southeastern Australia on Monday, as a heatwave rekindled devastating bush blazes across the country.
Authorities said “quite a number” of the 30,000 tourists visiting the usually picturesque southeast tip of the continent had heeded calls to evacuate.
More than a dozen blazes are raging in the East Gippsland countryside, some so intensely that hundreds of firefighters were pulled back beyond a firefront estimated to stretch 1,000 kilometres (600 miles).
It was deemed “unsafe” for them to remain in bushland areas, Gippsland fire incident controller Ben Rankin said.
It is the latest emergency in Australia’s devastating summer fire season, which has been turbocharged by a prolonged drought and climate change.
Ten people have been killed, more than 1,000 homes destroyed and more than three million hectares (7.4 million acres) – an area bigger than Belgium – have been scorched.
Conditions worsened on Friday with high winds and temperatures soaring across the country — reaching 47 degrees Celsius (116 Fahrenheit) in Western Australia, but topping 40 degrees in every region — including the usually temperate island of Tasmania.
The situation was “very intense” said Rankin, warning that conditions would worsen later in the day before temperatures drop markedly overnight.
‘Too late to leave’
Authorities had warned tourists enjoying Australia’s summer holidays in East Gippsland that the fires would cut off the last major road still open.
Victoria Emergency Management commissioner Andrew Crisp said residents and holidaymakers still in the area faced being stranded as it was now “too late to leave”, with his agency warning it was “not possible” to provide aid to all visitors in the area.
Neighbouring South Australia is also experiencing “catastrophic” fire conditions.
The Country Fire Service’s Brenton Eden said it would be a “very dangerous” day for people in the state, with “dry” thunderstorms – which produce thunder and lightning but no rain — already sparking a number of fires including an emergency-level blaze on Kangaroo Island.
“Winds are gusting and unfortunately this is a dry lightning front that is going to move rapidly across South Australia,” he told national broadcaster ABC.
Conditions were also expected to deteriorate in worst-hit New South Wales, where 100 fires were burning Monday morning including more than 40 uncontained.
Sydney and other major cities have been shrouded in toxic bushfire smoke haze for weeks, forcing children to play indoors and causing professional sporting events to be cancelled.
The capital Canberra has cancelled its New Year’s Eve fireworks display due to a total fire ban in the Australia Capital Territory, while several regional towns have also followed suit.
A petition to cancel Sydney’s famous New Year’s Eve fireworks and use the money to fight bushfires ringing the city has topped 270,000 signatures, but officials say the show will go on.
Sydney has spent Aus$6.5 million ($4.5 million) on this year’s fireworks display – funds that the Change.org petition argues would be better spent on supporting volunteer firefighters and farmers suffering through a brutal drought.
The crisis has focused attention on climate change – which scientists say is creating a longer and more intense bushfire season – and sparked street protests calling for immediate action to tackle global warming.
While conservative Prime Minister Scott Morrison belatedly acknowledged a link between the fires and climate change, he has continued his staunch support of Australia’s lucrative coal mining industry and ruled out further action to reduce emissions.