MIt is in the holiday season that more and more Australians are turning the beach from a resort into a refuge: thousands of people are trapped on beaches under a blood-red sky, while the storm-driven fires keep moving in their direction. More and more fires are ignited by “dry flashes” that create the huge fire walls with their own climate.
A total area of more than four million hectares – larger than the Netherlands – has already been burned, including forests that are listed as World Heritage by the United Nations (Unesco). The number of dead has now risen to twelve, including a third young fireman. His fire truck was thrown into the air by a fire tornado.
People, horses and dogs
South of Batemans Bay, an important holiday destination for the capital Canberra, with its cafés on the river, hundreds fled to the beach to escape the flames. People, horses and dogs gathered in the flame over Malua Beach. Many breathing masks wear against the acrid smoke that also hangs over the capital, which is an hour and a half away by car. People use their cell phones to report that they were hiding behind sand dunes by the sea to protect themselves from the extreme temperatures in the adjacent bush.
In the heat, gas bottles explode on the houses, which the Australians use to cook. More than 5,000 people are waiting around the Surf Live Saving Club in Bermagui in southern Canberra. Most of them are Australian tourists, many of them government officials who wanted to spend their Christmas holidays here on the beach.
Around 4,000 people remain on Mallacoota Beach in the state of Victoria. When the storm turned its direction after many hours of anxiety, a liberating cry resounded from thousands of throats. The images appear as if people are waiting for Noah’s ark to save them.
It is not in sight. In Victoria with its capital Melbourne and in New South Wales with its capital Sydney, eight fires blaze for which the emergency has been declared. On the island of Tasmania in the south, the weirs are fighting five major fires. So far, more than a thousand houses have been destroyed. The number is likely to increase significantly in the next few hours, however, as several towns have caught fire.
Firefighters at their limits
The voluntary fire brigade, which fights the fires to the point of exhaustion with several thousand often well-trained men and women, reaches its limits. On Tuesday afternoon, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he would deploy the army against the fires in the state of Victoria. At the same time, Australia requested further support from fire departments in Canada and America. Across the fifth continent, temperatures have risen to record levels of over 40 degrees.
In the early afternoon in Australia, the fire department in New South Wales warned of so-called fire thunderstorms, which cause the huge fires themselves. The blazing fires now attract more and more oxygen, which leads to storms, which in turn accelerate the flames even further. The pyro-cumulonimbus led to “unpredictable storms, dry flashes and therefore significantly higher fire speeds”, which drove the fires in very different directions. The government describes “flame genitus” clouds in which “like a mushroom cloud or a cloud after a volcanic eruption” forms thunderstorms. The cloud rises into the stratosphere to encounter ice particles there: the different temperatures lead to charges that cause thunderstorms without rain. Due to the lightning, the dry thunderstorms, in which all precipitation evaporates on the way to the ground, ignite new sources of fire – an inferno against which the best weirs on the ground are powerless.
Too early for damage assessment
Already more than 220,000 hectares in Victoria’s beach area have fallen victim to the flames. In times when people run for their lives and homes, schools and sports halls go up in flames, it is too early to start taking damage. But the fires hit not only the direct victims, but also the business people: These days are the most important holiday season “down-under” – and more and more hotels and campsites along the beaches around Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne and in the mountains around South Australia’s Adelaide must be cleared.
At the same time, the political dispute continues to blaze. It has long been not just about ministers and prime ministers on vacation during the disaster, but about Australia’s climate and energy policies. Energy minister Angus Taylor, who is controversial as a coal supporter, is currently defending the government’s energy policy and said that Australia would not deviate significantly from its climate policy course. However, due to the heat, the power supply in parts of Victoria is becoming scarce. 5,000 houses were without energy after fires destroyed a land line. The villages are bathed in dark smoke. The Snowy Mountain hydropower plants, a system of 16 dams, had to be evacuated because the fire wind turned in their direction. The turbines are still working, but the boss warned of extremely low water levels in the reservoirs due to the years of drought.
The sparks fly in the region is five to six kilometers, so that new sources of fire are constantly emerging. The state electricity supplier states that “several events could switch off the power transmission”. When a connection to the Snowy Mountain power plant complex was briefly interrupted on Monday, the wholesale electricity price shot up from the usual 40 Australian dollars per megawatt hour to almost 15,000 dollars for around ten minutes.