SYDNEY – Australian authorities declared on Thursday a state of emergency in eastern parts of the country as an intense heatwave aggravated forest fires that have been raging on since November, while protests continued against the climate policies of the government.
With temperatures soaring above 40 degrees Celsius, the premier of the state of New South Wales, Gladys Berejikilan, declared the state of emergency in her jurisdiction for the next seven days.
“The biggest concern over the next few days is the unpredictability, with extreme wind conditions, extremely hot temperatures,” Berejiklian said told reporters in Sydney.
It is the second time since November that emergency, which allows firefighters to close down roads and order evacuations, has been declared in New South Wales that has been severely hit by fires and by one of the worst droughts in the country’s history.
Last year fires killed six people and destroyed over 800 houses and nearly three million hectares of land in the state.
Some 97 fire hotspots remain active in New South Wales with around half of them raging out of control, including two within the limits of the Sydney metropolitan area.
One of these two is burning in Green Wattle Creek, where at least three firefighters have been injured after being surrounded by the flames and around 40 houses have been destroyed, Berejikilan and Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said.
The heatwave, which pushed the national average temperature to 41.9 degrees, the highest recorded in the country, has also put authorities on alert in the northeastern state of Queensland, apart from South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory, which includes Canberra.
The blazes have also generated a smoke cloud which has for weeks been affecting several cities in the southeast, including Sydney, where air pollution has at times reached levels more than 10 times higher than the danger mark.
This led to around 20 unions representing health professionals releasing a joint statement on Monday, which declared the situation in New South Wales as a “public health emergency” and urged Prime Minister Scot Morrison to deal with the issue.
Morrison has faced protests joined by thousands of people in recent weeks, who have demanded that the government of Australia – the biggest coal exporter in the world – take measures for an immediate shift towards renewable energies and launch a national strategy against fires.
The prime minister, who has been criticized for planning to use carbon credits to fulfill the objective of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28 percent (compared to the 2005 levels) by 2030 – as mandated by the Paris Agreement – has infuriated his opponents further by deciding to go on a holiday even as the fires spread.
Groups of students, nurses, doctors, those displaced by fires and indigenous communities on Thursday gathered in front of Morrison’s residence in Sydney, carrying placards saying “Where the Bloody Hell are You?” to protest against his alleged lack of leadership in dealing with the fires, smoke and climate emergency.
Deanna Hayes, one of the organizers, said that the fires had already emitted more than half of the annual carbon emissions in Australia and emphasized that the situation was a “national climate emergency.”
Some of the protesters erected camping tents in front of Morrison’s residence and said they would not move until the prime minister returns.
The fire season in Australia varies by area and weather conditions, although they are generally recorded in the southern summer (between December and March).
The worst fires in the Oceanic country in recent decades occurred in early February 2009 in the state of Victoria, leaving 173 people dead and 414 injured, as well burning an area of 4,500 sq km.