Sydney (AFP) – At least two people have died and 100 homes have been destroyed as an unprecedented number of bushfires tore through eastern Australia Saturday.
New South Wales premier Gladys Berejiklian also said seven people were unaccounted for, as firefighters tried to contain dozens of out-of-control blazes that have raged in the state since Friday.
“I’m sorry to say that number can increase during the day,” she said of the death toll, adding that despite some respite Saturday, next week’s weather forecast “could mean we’re not through the worst of it.”
Emergency services said they had found the remains of one person in a car and another woman died despite medics struggling for several hours to save her.
“At this stage, it appears at least 100 homes have been destroyed in yesterday’s bush fires,” the fire service said in an update early Saturday.
More than 30 people have been injured, most of them firefighters.
Almost 100 blazes pockmarked the New South Wales and Queensland countryside — although just five of them remained highly dangerous.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the large number of fires was “incredibly concerning.” He urged residents to “stay safe” and “listen to emergency services”.
“I’m getting regular updates and we stand ready to offer any assistance needed,” he tweeted.
Firefighters had warned they were in “uncharted territory” as they deployed 1,200 firefighters and 70 aircraft across a roughly 1,000-kilometre (620-mile) stretch of the seaboard.
Bushfires are common in Australia and a vast corps of firefighters had already been tackling sporadic blazes for months in the lead-up to the southern hemisphere summer.
But this is a dramatic start to what scientists predict will be a tough fire season ahead — with climate change and unfavourable weather cycles helping create a tinderbox of strong winds, low humidity and high temperatures.
While conditions eased markedly in some areas and the forecast was downgraded from “extreme” to “high” or “very high” Saturday, a total fire ban remained in place in many areas and further high winds were predicted.