Australia fires: Crews battle blazes across NSW and Queensland

By Ben Westcott and Brett McKeehan, CNN

Updated 8:11 a.m. ET, November 12, 2019
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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.

6:02 p.m. ET, November 11, 2019

Climate crisis is at the heart of Australia's rampant fire threat

From CNN's Joshua Berlinger

Fires have been happening more frequently in Australia for years, starting earlier in the season and spreading with even greater intensity -- and experts say climate change is the cause.

Fire officials speak out: Greg Mullins, the former commissioner of New South Wales' Fire and Rescue Department, has been among the most vocal critics. He and 22 other former high-ranking emergency service officials sent letters to Prime Minister Scott Morrison in April and September warning of the impact of the climate crisis on Australia and the possibility of "unprecedented fire danger," local media reported.

"If anyone tells you, 'This is part of a normal cycle' or 'We've had fires like this before', smile politely and walk away, because they don't know what they're talking about," Mullins wrote in a piece for The Sydney Morning Herald on Monday.

The Morrison government has been accused of not doing enough to address the climate crisis, and the PM sidestepped questions last weekend when asked about climate change.

Carol Sparks, the mayor of the regional town of Glen Innes, who was herself evacuated from the path of a fire over the weekend, slammed federal politicians for failing to directly link the fires to the climate crisis.

"It's climate change, there's no doubt about it. The whole of the country is going to be affected. We need to take a serious look at our future," Sparks told the Australian Associated Press.

6:02 p.m. ET, November 11, 2019

Dozens of fires are burning in New South Wales and Queensland

From CNN's Joshua Berlinger

Burned cars and property north of Sydney, Australia, on November 11, 2019.
Burned cars and property north of Sydney, Australia, on November 11, 2019. PETER PARKS/AFP via Getty Images

As of Monday, 64 fires were burning across New South Wales -- 40 of which had not been contained, the NSW Rural Fire Service said. Dozens of schools in fire-risk regions were closed.

There were 50 fires raging across Queensland, with three significant blazes located across an area of 500 kilometers (310 miles), according to the Queensland Fire and Emergency Service.

Satellite images showed smoke billowing more than 4,000 kilometers (2,500 miles) across the Tasman Sea to New Zealand's South Island.

6:02 p.m. ET, November 11, 2019

350 koalas have been "incinerated" in the blazes

From CNN's Joshua Berlinger

An estimated 350 koalas are feared dead in the Australian bushfires, according to Sue Ashton, president of the Koala Hospital Port Macquarie.

"Where we thought we had koalas, we now think they've been incinerated," Ashton told CNN affiliate Nine News Australia on Friday.

"The fire is so intense that what's happening is the fire goes through and the little koalas and other wildlife are just burned to pieces and become ash. So it's absolutely horrific."

The hospital is treating at least 12 koalas, five of which have serious injuries, Ashton said.

Up to 600 koalas live on the Lake Innes Nature Reserve in New South Wales, Ashton said, and two-thirds of the habitat has already burned.

8:42 p.m. ET, November 11, 2019

Authorities declare "catastrophic" fire warning in New South Wales

From CNN's Joshua Berlinger

Wildfires burning in Glen Innes, Australia, on November 10, 2019.
Wildfires burning in Glen Innes, Australia, on November 10, 2019. Brook Mitchell/Getty Images

On Sunday, the New South Wales Rural Fire Service raised the fire danger for the greater Sydney area to a "catastrophic" rating -- the highest level.

It's the first time the warning level has been set for greater Sydney since a new rating system was introduced a decade ago.

The nearby greater Hunter area, Illawarra and Shoalhaven are all facing catastrophic fire warnings.

The rating calls on people to evacuate ahead of time, to avoid areas that might be prone to fires, or identify safe locations if they're unable to leave.

"For your survival, leaving early is the only option," the warning stated.

The fire service said the coming days will see high temperatures, strong winds and low humidity. A total statewide fire ban was instituted statewide and will stretch into Tuesday, the fire service said.