After much debate and consternation, the world-renowned fireworks show over Sydney Harbor delighted the estimated 1 million in attendance as Australia greeted a new year.
Now back to worrying about the bushfires.
A devastating fire season that has seen more than 12 million acres burn nationwide over a matter of months hit another crisis point Tuesday when residents and vacationers in a seaside town were trapped in apocalyptic conditions, and at least two people were killed as the eastern parts of Australia’s two most populous states continued to get torched.
The weather forecast offers only a little respite from the conditions that have fueled a surge in blazes amid what has been the country’s worst fire season in memory.
According to AccuWeather, there will be a letup Thursday in the heat and gusty winds that caused the fires to spread across New South Wales and Victoria, but those same factors will return Friday and into Saturday. It’s not until Sunday that widespread rain will arrive in the area for the first time in several weeks.
New South Wales state Rural Fire Services Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons wasn’t overly optimistic.
“What we really need is meaningful rain,’’ he said, “and we haven’t got anything in the forecast at the moment that says we’re going to get drought-breaking or fire-quenching rainfall.”
The tinder-dry conditions prompted the cancellation of fireworks shows across the nation, and Sydney Mayor Clover Moore was pressed to follow suit as the leader of the largest city in a state, New South Wales, where almost 100 fires are burning. In the town of Conjola Park alone, 50 properties were confirmed destroyed and cars were melted by Tuesday’s blazes.
Moore declined, saying the New Year’s Eve celebration would “give hope to people at a terrible time.’’
She also pointed out the event had been months in the making and generates more than $90 million in revenue, drawing visitors from near and far. Sydney was granted an exemption to a total fireworks ban in place there and elsewhere to prevent new wildfires.
The Australian tourist industry may take a hit nonetheless after an estimated 4,000 people had to seek refuge on a beach in the southeastern town of Mallacoota, Victoria, about 300 miles east of Melbourne, as winds pushed a wildfire toward houses. The smoke-filled sky shrouded the town in darkness before turning a shade of bright red.
Many people escaped on boats as crews battled the blaze, eventually getting a break when the winds changed direction late in the day, though by then dozens of homes had burned down.
Stranded residents and vacationers slept in cars, while gas stations and surf clubs transformed into evacuation areas.
Victoria Emergency Commissioner Andrew Crisp told reporters the Australian Defense Force was moving naval assets to Mallacoota on a supply mission that would last two weeks and helicopters would also fly in more firefighters because roads were inaccessible.
There were grave fears for four missing people. “We can’t confirm their whereabouts,” Victoria state Premier Daniel Andrews told reporters.
Australia’s fire season, which began earlier than usual after an uncommonly dry and warm winter, has already claimed 13 lives and resulted in more than 1,000 homes getting destroyed.
In the nation’s capital of Canberra, smoke from the wildfires led to the worst air quality in the world Wednesday, with a rating more than 21 times above the hazardous level.
Contributing: The Associated Press