Amidst all the celebration of Christmas and New Year, the most dangerous fires on Monday were in the state of Victoria. People in the town woke up to thick smoke and pale, orange skies. But as the fires drew closer, the sky turned red.
Around 1,000 people live there, but the population swells at Christmas, as Australians head to the coast to enjoy their holidays. About 30,000 residents and tourists were urged to flee East Gippsland – a popular holiday region – but evacuations were later deemed too risky as fires encroached on major roads.
Scorching temperatures, strong winds and thunderstorms created dangerous conditions in Victoria on Monday.
In East Gippsland, three fires burning near the towns of Bruthen, Buchan and Bonang rapidly expanded as temperatures soared to the mid-40Cs.
Officials said the wind-driven blazes were “racing” towards the coast, and had moved faster than predicted. Residents in northern Melbourne were told to “act immediately to survive” as firefighters struggled to battle an out-of-control fire.
Officials said the fire in Bundoora, some 16km (10 miles) north of Melbourne city centre, was “threatening homes and lives”. “The safest option is to take shelter indoors immediately. It is too late to leave,” Victoria Emergency said.
The fire, which reportedly damaged homes in the area, was later downgraded from the emergency level.Other emergency warnings remained in place for several fires in the state, with some urged to evacuate.
“We have had a challenging day in Victoria,” said Andrew Crisp, the state’s emergency management commissioner.He said the huge blazes had produced their own weather systems from smoke columns “punching into the atmosphere 14km high”. “There’s lightning coming out of these columns. It is unpredictable [and] it’s dangerous out there,” he said.
Similar fire-generated thunderstorms – or pyrocumulonimbus – were also recorded in NSW.
Lightning strikes in dry, drought-affected forests have the potential to quickly become fires that threaten lives and homes.
Dry lightning sparked at least 70 new fires in the region in the past 24 hours, officials said.
A 250km (155-mile) stretch of the Princes Highway, east of Bairnsdale, was closed on Monday.
On Sunday, Mr Crisp urged people in the region – about 280km (175 miles) east of Melbourne – to “get out”, but confirmed on Monday that many people had remained in the region.
Elsewhere in the state, a major New Year’s Eve music festival has been cancelled after organisers said the bushfire threat was too dangerous.
Some 9,000 people had already been camping at the Falls Festival in Lorne.
Access is by a single track, meaning it would not be possible for festival-goers to evacuate quickly.
“We are gutted to make this call but the safety of our patrons, artists and staff is our main priority,” said organiser Jessica Ducrou.
Across Australia, the fires have destroyed at least four million hectares (9.9m acres) in five states since September.