Australia fires: one firefighter killed as bushfires rip through four states

Ben Smee and Australian Associated Press

One firefighter has died and multiple properties are feared lost after terrifying bushfires driven by extreme weather conditions swept across four Australian states on Monday.

The volunteer firefighter from the New South Wales Rural Fire Service died when a truck rolled near Jingellic, about 70km east of Albury, on the border with Victoria. The RFS said two trucks, including the one in which the firefighter died, had been overturned by high winds. Two others suffered burns in the crash.

Ten people have now died during one of the worst bushfire seasons in the nation’s history, which have burned through more than 4.6m hectares.

Related: Victoria bushfires: hellish wait for those who fled – and those who stayed

The extreme weather conditions were expected to worsen late on Monday, after a horrific day in the East Gippsland region of Victoria, where authorities had called for mass evacuations.

Temperatures reached above 40C in all states, including Tasmania, where Hobart recorded 40.8C, its hottest December day ever. Several properties were reportedly lost in fires near Fingal in the north of the island state.

On Monday evening, 16 emergency-level fires were burning in Victoria, Tasmania and New South Wales. In South Australia, conditions had been rated catastrophic across much of the state, but it survived the day without feared extensive property losses.

Firefighters were bracing for further strong winds, in some places forecast to reach up to 120km an hour, and dry lightning strikes, which authorities fear could be ruinous after a day of sweltering heat. New South Wales was expected to face the worst threat on New Year’s Eve.

The most extensive fires on Monday were burning in the East Gippsland region, a popular coastal holiday destination east of Melbourne, where an estimated 30,000 visitors have been staying over the New Year period.

By late Monday, nine emergency-level fires were burning in East Gippsland. One fire, sparked by dry lightning between Cann River and Mallacoota, travelled 24km in six hours early on Monday morning.

Two fires that merged sent plumes of smoke as high as 12km into the sky.

A skycrane drops water on a bushfire in scrub behind houses in the Melbourne suburb of Bundoora. Photograph: Ellen Smith/AP

The Victorian Emergency Management commissioner, Andrew Crisp, said it had been a “high-risk day” in Victoria and people who chose to stay at the holiday town of Lakes Entrance might now be stuck there. Earlier, authorities had said people should be safe in the town itself, but all roads in and out were cut by the fires.

“We recently looked at the columns, and they’re generating their own weather,” Crisp said.

“There’s lightning coming out of these columns. It is unpredictable, it’s dangerous out there, and people need to stay tuned to their local conditions and stay across that good information so they can make good decisions.”

Three of the fires in East Gippsland have been burning for more than a month.

Elsewhere in Victoria, an out-of-control bushfire damaged several homes in Melbourne’s northern suburbs. Properties in the areas of Bundoora, Greensborough and Mill Park had to be protected by water bombers as fire swept suddenly out of the Plenty Gorge Creek.

The Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, returned to Melbourne from a family holiday and was being briefed on the fires on Monday evening.

In New South Wales a fire-generated thunderstorm, or pyro-cumulonimbus, formed over fires burning near the south coast. A pyro-cumulonimbus can create erratic winds and dry lightning and result in significantly faster fire spread.

Related: How big are the fires burning in eastern Australia? Interactive map

Temperatures were forecast to exceed 40C in western Sydney and parts of regional New South Wales on Tuesday.

Map

As the fire emergency that has ebbed and flowed for several months continued, many regional communities and two Sydney councils cancelled scheduled New Year’s Eve fireworks shows.

On Monday afternoon the Rural Fire Service gave the go-ahead for the Sydney Harbour fireworks show to go ahead after a fierce public debate about whether it was appropriate or safe during the bushfire crisis.

The New South Wales deputy premier, John Barilaro, said it was “an easy decision” that the Sydney display should be cancelled, but the premier, Gladys Berejiklian, and Sydney’s lord mayor, Clover Moore, both insisted it should go ahead. More than a million people are expected to line the harbour to watch the display, including many foreign visitors.