Australia fires: Crews battle blazes across NSW and Queensland

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9:07 p.m. ET, November 11, 2019

The smoke from Australia's "most dangerous bushfire week ever" can be seen from space

With more than 100 fires burning in the Australian states of New South Wales and Queensland, the smoke cloud is so significant it can be seen from space.

In an image released by US space agency NASA overnight, the smoke can be seen over the Tasman Sea between Australia and New Zealand.

"Strong westerly winds fanned the flames and carried smoke several hundred kilometers out to sea," the agency said in a statement.

Both New South Wales and Queensland have declared a state of emergency around the fires, dozens of which burned uncontrolled on Tuesday.

"(We) will be providing every financial and operational level of support to the rural fire service to get us through what potentially could be the most dangerous bush fire week this nation has ever seen," NSW Minister for Emergency Services David Elliot said on Sunday.

A natural-color image of the smoke, which was acquired on NASA’s Terra satellite on November 11.
A natural-color image of the smoke, which was acquired on NASA’s Terra satellite on November 11. NASA

8:39 p.m. ET, November 11, 2019

Here's what it looks like in Australia

Hundreds of thousands of Australians awoke to smoke and haze on Tuesday, as dozens of fires continue to burn in New South Wales and Queensland.

The haze made for a smoky sunrise in the NSW city of Newcastle, resident Tim Hooper wrote on Instagram.

As day dawned, the NSW town of Port Macquarie was covered in thick gray smoke.

Resident Andrew Morrow posted a photo on Instagram and wrote: "Going to be a long day here."

8:34 p.m. ET, November 11, 2019

Two tourists were trapped by smoke and fire on a highway

Two British tourists traveling in Australia were caught in the wildfires from Sunday night to Monday morning. 

Eleanor Cohen and Corey Lawes were traveling from Brisbane to Sydney when they became stuck on a highway, trapped by smoke and fire.

"As we traveled down the east coast of Australia and arrived at Port Macquarie we were met with thick smoke and hit road closures all around us. The fire had actually jumped over the highway we were on. The town was evacuated. After traveling back the way we came, we eventually settled by the side of the road for the night as there was no way of getting around," Cohen wrote on Instagram with a photo of the smoke.

Cohen told CNN that police and firefighters arrived and told them to evacuate to the next town. The couple is safe and heading to Sydney today. 

"We’re so lucky I didn’t have to evacuate from a house, not knowing what I would be coming back to," Cohen said. "I really feel for those who were in that situation. So sad."

8:18 p.m. ET, November 11, 2019

Australia Prime Minister: This is "the calm before the storm"

Fire damage on November 11, 2019, in Glen Innes, Australia.
Fire damage on November 11, 2019, in Glen Innes, Australia. Brook Mitchell/Getty Images

Australia is seeing “the calm before the storm” as dozens of wildfires continue to burn, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Tuesday while speaking on 2GB radio.

Morrison said local authorities are “well prepared” and on “high alert” to respond to the fires, but added the national army is poised to assist “at a moment’s notice."

“I think the whole team in New South Wales are on this and we’re just there to support them in every way we can," he said.

He added: "Let's hope today is a boring day. I really just want to assure people that everything that can be done is being done. Nature will throw some curveballs today, no doubt, and they'll have to respond."

Morrison also urged Australians to act cautiously and with "common sense."

"There will be a lot of people who want to go above and beyond – and that's totally understandable – but also common sense, think of your own safety as well. Just follow the instructions and the warnings and we should get through this today," he said.
8:58 p.m. ET, November 11, 2019

Almost 600 schools across the state of New South Wales are shut

A sign displays information about the closure of St Ives North Public School on November 12 in Sydney.
A sign displays information about the closure of St Ives North Public School on November 12 in Sydney. Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

Hundreds of schools across the Australian state of New South Wales shut their doors on Tuesday.

NSW Department of Education secretary Mark Scott said at least 575 primary and high schools had closed due to fears over student safety, as well as about 20 skills colleges.

The fires come as Year 12 students across the state sit their end-of-school exams, the Higher School Certificate, or HSC.

The department said any exams canceled by the fires would be rescheduled. "Students should not put themselves in danger for an exam," the statement said.

Some schools had already seen "significant damage," the department said. In a press conference at 8 p.m. ET, NSW Rural Fire Services Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said conditions were continuing to worsen across the state.

"We are certainly starting to see an increase in fire activity and so the fire danger is increasing accordingly," he said.

7:47 p.m. ET, November 11, 2019

Firefighters in the state of Queensland are tackling more than 50 fires Tuesday morning

While most of the attention is focused on New South Wales and the fires burning around Sydney, emergency crews are still facing dangerous blazes up north in Queensland.

In a video posted to its official Facebook page, the Queensland Fire and Emergency Services said fatigue was building up among fire crews.

"Conditions have obviously been severe and they're going to be protracted over the next couple of days," said Stephen Smith, assistant commissioner of the QFES.

"Hot dry winds, high fuel, drought, very trying and challenging conditions."

Smith said volunteer firefighters had been called in to help on the front lines.

7:03 p.m. ET, November 11, 2019

Conditions similar to devastating 2009 Black Saturday fires, expert says

 A fire rages in Bobin, 350 kilometers (217 miles) north of Sydney, on November 9.
 A fire rages in Bobin, 350 kilometers (217 miles) north of Sydney, on November 9. Peter Parks/AFP via Getty Images

The weather in the Australian states of New South Wales and Queensland on Tuesday is similar to the conditions which led to the 2009 Black Saturday wildfires, an emergency expert said.

The Black Saturday blazes in the state of Victoria were the most devastating in the country's history, killing 173 people and destroying more than a million animals over 450,000 hectares (1,111,974 acres).

Stuart Ellis, chief executive of the Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council, told the ABC that Tuesday's fires had the potential to be even worse than the 2009 blazes.

"The concerning thing about today in NSW in particular, but also in Queensland, is that there is already significant fire in the landscape. On Black Saturday there was a very small number of fires in Victoria, but in NSW today we already have a large number," he said.

"The only safe place to be is somewhere else. And I'm an ex-SAS officer, I feel pretty capable but I would not consider staying at my home today."

7:18 p.m. ET, November 11, 2019

"Catastrophic" fire risk didn't even exist in Australia until a decade ago

A "catastrophic" fire risk rating has been issued for Sydney on Tuesday, Australia's largest city -- the highest possible ranking for the country's emergency services.

On the official NSW Rural Fire Services website, residents in "catastrophic" fire conditions are told to make a decision about "when you will leave."

"Homes are not designed to withstand fires in catastrophic conditions so you should leave early," the website said.

A dirt track runs through burnt forest in the Kinglake region on February 12, 2009 in Melbourne, Australia.
A dirt track runs through burnt forest in the Kinglake region on February 12, 2009 in Melbourne, Australia. Luis Ascui/Getty Images

Up until a decade ago, the "catastrophic" fire risk level didn't even exist because the conditions were so rare. It was only after the devastating 2009 Black Saturday bushfires in the state of Victoria, in which 173 people were killed, that the category was introduced.

Macquarie University's Mel Taylor, a researcher at the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Center, said a "catastrophic" risk indicated "the worst" possible conditions.

“The catastrophic fire danger rating is based on a lot of different measures – temperature, humidity, fuel, wind – being off the scale so that if a fire starts in these conditions, it will travel very quickly and firefighters will not be able to control it,” she said.

“The only thing they will be able to do is to get people out.”

A firefighter battles a blaze in the Victorian township of Taggety on February 7, 2009.
A firefighter battles a blaze in the Victorian township of Taggety on February 7, 2009. Stephen Henderson/CFA via Getty Images

6:11 p.m. ET, November 11, 2019

Dangerous day looms for tinder-dry state of New South Wales, fire service says

The New South Wales Rural Fire Service (NSW RFS) has warned of a "very long and very dangerous day ahead" on its official Twitter account.

Speaking to the press Tuesday morning local time, NSW RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said that while the situation was "calm" at the moment, eastern Australia was still on track for a day of "catastrophic" fire risk.

"We have seen an increase in the number of fires reaching Watch and Act alert level, which is indicative of things changing on the ground, fire activity increase and we're seeing some spread in the fires particularly up north of NSW," he said.

He said there are 54 fires burning in NSW, 26 of which were "uncontained."

Fitzsimmons said winds were reaching more than 40 kilometers per hour (25 miles per hour) in parts of the state. Conditions are expected to significantly worsen after midday local time (9 p.m. ET).

"Now is the time to exercise those decisions, to leave, leave early, and go to safer locations, safer towns and villages, or safer places in your local community," he said.