Australia has deployed military aid as hundreds of raging wildfires engulf the southeast coast, forcing residents to evacuate their homes.
Seven have died since December 30, with fires raging through communities in New South Wales and Victoria states, according to the Associated Press (AP). Victims include a volunteer firefighter who was killed by a “fire tornado” that flipped over his truck, according to local authorities.
Posts showing residents of the seaside town of Mallacoota sheltering on boats circulated on social media, and thousands more evacuated to the beach, as a fire ripped through the state of Victoria on Tuesday, December 31. About 500 kilometers east of Melbourne, the sky in Mallacoota was transformed a dirty red as strong gusts pushed out-of-control bushfires to destroy residencies.
The Australian Defense Force shipped in supplies and helicoptered in firefighters, as roads became unusable.
South of Nowra, firefighters from Fire and Rescue NSW Station 509 Wyoming, who took a perilous, flame-engulfed drive through bushfires, were forced to shelter in their truck in a terrifying moment after it was engulfed by flames that overrun them.
Fire and Rescue NSW posted footage on Twitter showing the firemen scrambling to protect the truck’s windows with blanketing, as flames lick up the side, freezing the truck. They eventually break free, unhurt.
This was New South Wales’ (NSW) worst bushfire season on record, according to Shane Fitzsimmons, the NSW Rural Fire Service commissioner.
“We’ve seen extraordinary fire behavior,” he said Tuesday, according to the AP. “What we really need is meaningful rain, 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.”
With more than 40,000 square kilometres being affected across five states, volunteers are also trying to rescue Australia’s indiginous fauna—including kangaroos, koalas, wallabies, possums, wombats and echidnas. Experts fear that up to 30 percent of one northeastern koala colony—between 4,500 and 9,000 koalas—may have been lost in recent infernos. The total loss of native animals are likely to be as high as 480 million, since September, with the total burn of 5 million hectares (12 million acres). Survivors of the heat and habitat loss have been left desperately searching for food and water.
“We’re not getting that many animals coming into care. So, our concern is that they don’t come into care, because they’re not there anymore, basically,” said Tracy Burgess, a volunteer at Wildlife Information, Rescue and Education Services (WIRES), while holding an injured brushtail possum.
“Once we got the pouch open, a tiny little hand came out with claws on it, so, yeah, there’s a pinkie—very little baby unfurred possum,” she told Reuters. “So she’s a ferocious mother who has clearly done her best for her bub.”
Social media have been exploding in recent weeks with dehydrated animals crawling to gardens and residential pools, and WIRES are encouraging people to provide much-needed emergency nourishment.
Anna Heuseler and a group of cyclists heading towards Adelaide shared their encounter with a dehydrated koala, who had been sitting in the middle of the road in in temperatures of up to 40 degrees celsius.
“This koala walked right up to me as I was descending and climbed up onto my bike while I gave him water. Best thing to happen to me on a ride ever,” Ms. Heuseler posted on Instagram.
“We’ve seen literally hundreds of koalas over the years [but] we have never seen a koala do this,” Ms. Heuseler told 7News.
Firefighters in NSW are battling more than 100 fires, according to the state’s Rural Fire Service.
A petition calling on the government to cancel Sydney’s famed New Years Eve fireworks and reallocate funds to firefighters received over 280,000 signatures; yet failed to stop the display, which went ahead despite the heat.
“We have three months of hot weather to come. We do have a dynamic and a dangerous fire situation across the state,” said Victoria Emergency Commissioner Andrew Crisp, according to the AP.
Lesley Hughes, with the environmental group Climate Council of Australia, told TIME that the country experienced its hottest-ever drought conditions in 2019.
“Australia is in the grip of probably unprecedented heatwave conditions almost right across the continent,” he said.