Three Australian states face more dangerous bushfire weather from Thursday

Naaman Zhou
Photograph: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images

Firefighters and residents in south-eastern Australia are bracing for the return of dangerous weather conditions on Thursday and Friday.

Australia’s bushfire crisis has already burned through 8.4m hectares of land, destroyed thousands of homes and killed at least 26 people, including three volunteer firefighters.

After milder weather at the start of this week, conditions will worsen in parts of New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia from Thursday. Temperatures of 40C and unpredictable winds are set to sweep through a range of fire zones.

In South Australia, Thursday will be the day of greatest concern, while NSW and Victoria are likely to have a difficult day on Friday.

An extreme fire danger rating has been issued by the Bureau of Meteorology for the northern county region of Victoria on Friday, and severe danger ratings for the Mallee and north-east.

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Residents in Victoria’s north-east are being told to leave now as the danger heightens. An emergency warning was issued on Thursday morning for Bobinawarrah, Carboor, Kneebones Gap, Whorouly, Whorouly East and Whorouly South, all south of Wangaratta. It’s the first emergency warning in Victoria’s fire-ravaged east in days.

Lisa Neville, the state’s emergency services minister, said the conditions this week would be “very similar” to the conditions that forced an evacuation of East Gippsland on 29 December.

“They are very similar to conditions that we experienced Sunday a week ago, and that’s why the message is the same as we issued then, that is, people should leave those fire-impacted areas. The safest place to be is outside those areas and to be in built-up areas,” Neville said.

“For those who aren’t choosing to leave, again the message is absolutely follow the warnings, follow the advice, sit on your Vic Emergency app, follow your local radio stations, get the most up-to-date information.

Neville said all Victorians should be alert, as dry lightning could set off “fast-moving fires in other parts of Victoria”.

Authorities are concerned that fires in the alpine region and East Gippsland could merge during the change.

Tom Delamotte from the Bureau of Meteorology said there was a strong chance of high winds bringing the cool change.

“We will potentially see some gusts as high as 70km/h to 80km/h move through with the west to south-westerly change.” .

A spokeswoman for the SA Country Fire Service said its focus on Thursday would be on Kangaroo Island, where fires have burned through 160,000 hectares.

“We’re getting extra crews in today in preparation for tomorrow,” the CFS said. “Tomorrow in terms of weather is a concern for us, with high temperatures and variable winds.”

Concern will be focused on the western side of the island, where fires continue to burn, and the CFS said it was seeing “some breakout fires across there at the moment”.

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The town of Vivonne Bay on the south coast will be evacuated, amid fears a bushfire may breach containment lines. Residents will be asked to seek refuge in either Kingscote or Penneshaw, with accommodation camps being set up.

“This a pre-emptive relocation due to the increased fire risk in the next two days,” the Country Fire Service said. “Currently, there is no immediate threat to life or property but with increasing wind, warmer weather and going fires on Kangaroo Island, this situation is likely to change.”

About 75 people live in the south coast town and will not be allowed to return until at least Friday, when conditions are forecast to ease. Between 5mm and 10mm of rain is expected to fall late on Thursday night.

Kangaroo Island is forecast to hit a maximum of 38C on Thursday but that will drop to a maximum of 21C on Friday.

In Victoria a Country Fire Authority spokesman said Friday was “the main day of concern”, with 40C temperatures forecast in the north of the state.

Scott Morrison studies the extent of the Kangaroo Island bushfires while visiting the Defence staging ground at Kingscote Airport on Wednesday. Photograph: David Mariuz/AAP

Corryong will hit a maximum of 39C and Rutherglen 41C. The Corryong fire, which is near the border of Victoria and NSW, is a major concern for both states.

In NSW a Rural Fire Service spokesman told Guardian Australia that Friday would see “the return of strong north-westerly winds and high temperatures”. A late southerly change will also bring unpredictable conditions to the firegrounds at the end of Friday.

Albury is forecast for a maximum of 41C on Friday, and Tumut is set for 42C. Wagga Wagga, in the Riverina, is also forecast for 42C. In Sydney on Wednesday, large parts of the city registered over 200 on NSW Health’s air quality index, while Wollongong reached 458, Goulburn reached 435 and Albury reached 456.

The NSW emergency services minister, David Elliott, said on Tuesday that despite the difficult day predicted on Friday, he hoped this week could be considered “the end of the beginning”.

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Fire crews have used scattered showers and cooler conditions to good effect in recent days, he said.

“We are not out of the woods yet – Friday will again be another dangerous day because of the heat,” he told reporters in Sydney. “But after a couple of days of moist and mild weather hopefully the firegrounds are going to be a little easier to manage.

“What you’ll see at the end of this month is the commencement of the mopping up exercises … February is always hot but, with the forecast of some wet weather coming in March and April, we shouldn’t see too much more expansion. What we will see is containment.”

On Wednesday, SA’s premier, Steven Marshall, said much of Kangaroo Island was still open for business and unharmed by the fires.

“Two and a half thousand pristine square kilometres remains completely and utterly untouched,” he said. “So if you want to do the people of Kangaroo Island a favour, book a holiday.”

The prime minister, Scott Morrison, echoed his concerns, telling people to “cut local tourism operators a break”, rather than cancelling holidays on the island.

“If you booked accommodation and you’re now seeking a refund, can you cut them a break?” he said. “That’s in terms of, at the very least on the timing about when you might expect to receive a refund. These businesses have been hit very hard and their cash flow positions are not going to be in a position where they’re going to be able to meet every request.

“If you’re in a position to do so, then why not even let them keep it or, indeed, arrange for another time when you can take it up and come back and visit.”

with Australian Associated Press