A state of emergency was declared in Australia’s most populated region on Thursday as an unprecedented heatwave fanned out-of-control bushfires, destroying homes and smothering huge areas with toxic smoke.
As thousands of firefighters battled blazes, temperatures neared 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit) in some places and authorities warned the extreme weather conditions could get even worse.
Australia endures bushfires every year but the early and intense start to this season, along with the record temperatures, has fuelled concerns about global warming.
In New South Wales, Australia’s most populated state with Sydney as its capital, more than 100 bushfires were burning on Thursday, many of them out of control.
New South Wales premier Gladys Berejiklian declared a seven-day state of emergency, the second since the bushfire season began early in September, due to “catastrophic weather conditions”.
At Buxton, about 100 kilometres (62 miles) southwest of Sydney, longtime resident Paul Collins said a nearby bushfire that had destroyed dozens of buildings was “much worse” than in past year
“It’s spread faster with the wind, and the bush and the ground is just so dry,” Collins told AFP, blaming climate change and a long-running drought for the worsening fires.
“It’s just a horrendous situation, really.”
At least 20 houses were destroyed in New South Wales on Thursday, according to national broadcaster the ABC.
Meanwhile, the roughly five million people of Sydney continued to choke on smoke from a “mega-blaze” ringing the city.
– Public health emergency –
Leading doctors have warned the smoke, which has shrouded Sydney for weeks, has created a “public health emergency”.
Hospitals have been recording large increases in emergency room visits for respiratory problems.
Vulnerable people in New South Wales have been urged by authorities to stay indoors amid worries the scorching heat combined with the toxic smoke could cause “severe illness, hospital admissions and even death”.
The heatwave has led to a series of extraordinary records.
Australia endured a national maximum temperature of 41.9 degrees Celsius (107.4 degrees Fahrenheit) on Wednesday, a full degree higher than the previous record set just one day earlier.