SYDNEY – As the fire stalked the east coast of Australia on Tuesday, the daytime sky turned inky black, then blood red. Emergency sirens wailed, followed by the thunder of gas explosions. Thousands of residents fled their homes and huddled near the shore. There was nowhere else to go.
Apocalyptic scenes like these in Mallacoota, a vacation destination between Sydney and Melbourne, came on the last day of the warmest decade on record in Australia. The country is in the grip of a devastating fire season, with months of summer still to go, as record-breaking temperatures, strong winds and prolonged drought have ignited huge blazes across the country.
The government prepared to deploy navy vessels and military helicopters to help fight the fires and evacuate people.
The devastation is immense. In the state of New South Wales, which includes Sydney, more than 900 homes have been destroyed and 9 million acres have burned since November. About 100 fires are currently raging in the state, with about three dozen more across the border in Victoria. At least 11 people have died.
Australia is normally hot and dry in summer, but climate change, which brings more frequent and longer periods of extreme heat, worsens these conditions and makes vegetation drier and more likely to burn. The country recently concluded its driest spring on record.
The fires have been a constant presence in Australia for weeks, but the eerie images that emerged on social media on Tuesday cast them in a new light, and seemed to be a harbinger for the new decade that the country rang in hours later.
So heavy was the smoke, it even drifted over to New Zealand, 1,300 miles away, which woke up to a blood-red sun on New Year’s Day.
In Mallacoota, residents in boats shared footage of themselves wearing masks and life vests as they waited under the blazing red sky. Others opted to stay and defend homes, likening burning trees to “exploding infernos” and describing the roar of the blazes.
In Batemans Bay, four hours north, residents sat on folding chairs along the beach, life rafts at the ready, as a fire encircled the town and burned homes. To the south, in Cobargo, a father and son died in a blaze as they tried to protect the family home.
With several blazes burning out of control, thousands were stranded in evacuation centers in other towns along the coast as firefighters told people to stay put. Tens of thousands of people were without power, the Australian military was authorized to deploy aircraft and naval vessels, and the government requested firefighting help from Canada and the United States. Telecommunications remained down Wednesday in a 200-mile stretch of threatened area on the southeast coast.
In Batemans Bay, said James Findlay, who grew up there, the fire came so quickly that there was no hope to save his family home.
“Everything’s gone,” he said.