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As Wildfires Death Toll Rises, Australian Authorities Warn More Devastation Is On the Way

January 3, 2020, 12:11 PM UTC

The death toll from wildfires sweeping Australia climbed to 20 on Friday as authorities declared a state of emergency and ordered thousands of tourists to evacuate before extreme conditions at the weekend.

Ten people have been killed this week alone by the infernos in New South Wales and Victoria states that have cut-off communities, destroyed hundreds of homes and shocked the world with images of holiday-makers forced to shelter on beaches.

A mass evacuation of tourists has been ordered for a 350-kilometer (217-mile) stretch of coast from Nowra—about a three-hour drive south of Sydney —to the Victoria state border, where a similar emergency has been declared in an area the size of Belgium.

“There is a window until tonight, for people to get out and we encourage them to do so,” New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian told reporters. “Please do not stay in the area unless you absolutely have to.”

The unprecedented crisis has seen fires burn across all six Australian states and caused the highest number of fatalities since 180 people were killed by the Black Saturday blazes in 2009.

More than 12 million acres (5 million hectares) have been destroyed—that’s more than twice the size of Wales, and larger than Denmark—since the fire season began months ago during the southern hemisphere winter. The scale of the blazes dwarfs the California wildfires in 2018, which destroyed about 1.7 million acres.

About half a billion native animals may have been killed in the blazes in New South Wales state alone, according to researchers at the University of Sydney, while tens of thousands of livestock may have been lost in Victoria, the ABC cited the state agriculture minister as saying.

The disaster has fanned mounting concerns about climate change in the world’s driest-inhabited continent and triggered a backlash against the conservative government. Prime Minister Scott Morrison was heckled on Thursday by angry residents when he visited the bushfire-hit town of Cobargo, where two people died earlier this week, while others declined to shake his hand and called for more resources to tackle the disaster.

Environmentalists are demanding he takes more concerted steps to curb emissions in a nation that gets most of its power through burning fossil fuels and generates massive revenues through coal exports.

Roads were clogged with traffic Friday as people made their way out of danger zones, while the navy was evacuating about 1,000 people from the isolated coastal township of Mallacoota, which was hit hard by a bushfire on New Year’s Eve.

The Bureau of Meteorology says southeastern Australia faces extreme fire weather on Saturday, with temperatures pushing through 40 degrees Celsius, low humidity and strong winds that are expected sweep through the fire zone in Victoria’s East Gippsland region by mid-afternoon.

New South Wales Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons told reporters the day would be worse than New Year’s Eve, when massive fire-fronts tore through rural, forested communities and even impacted more established resort towns such as Batemans Bay, crammed with tourists during the peak summer holiday season.

Emergency warnings were also issued in South Australia, where authorities urged people to avoid the popular holiday destination of Kangaroo Island. A blaze there was “virtually unstoppable,” firefighters said.

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