Soaring temperatures and strong winds stoked unpredictable bushfires near Australia’s capital city on Saturday, closing a major highway and prompting warnings for some residents that it was too late to evacuate.
Skies along the Monaro Highway in the Australian Capital Territory turned orange-red as an uncontrolled blaze ballooned to more than 35,000 hectares (74,000 acres) in size.
“The issue we have with the fire activity is that the fire itself is generating its own weather pattern and that, combined with the wind direction, is what is driving that intensity in the fire,” ACT Emergency Services Agency Commissioner Georgeina Whelan said in a televised briefing in Canberra.
The territory, home to the country’s capital, Canberra, declared a state of emergency on Friday in anticipation of the severely hot and windy conditions that are expected to last through the weekend. It is the area’s first declared emergency since 2003 when four people were killed and almost 500 homes destroyed in wildfires.
A second major uncontrolled fire was burning slightly further south in the Snowy Monaro region of New South Wales state, the same alpine area where an air tanker crashed on Jan. 22 killing three American firefighters.
Temperatures were forecast to top 40 Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) in several parts of both NSW and the ACT on Saturday, prompting widespread warnings for people to be alert to the potential fire danger.
More than 60 fires were burning in NSW, with a third of those uncontained and officials issuing emergency level warnings for five in the state’s south.
Around 20 fires were burning in Victoria state, with one at emergency level. Away from the firegrounds, intense rainfall was forecast, with authorities warning of potential “dangerous and life-threatening flash flooding.”
“When it comes to the weather, it’s really the tale of two states,” Victoria Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp said on Saturday.
Australia’s devastating and prolonged bushfire season has killed 33 people and an estimated 1 billion native animals since September. About 2,500 homes have been destroyed and more than 11.7 million hectares (117,000 sq km) of tinder-dry bushland have been razed.