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Bushfires In Australia Rage On With No Relief In Sight


Trapped between a wall of fire and the sea - residents of an Australian coastal town called Mallacoota took refuge on the beach early Tuesday. Here's resident Francesca Winterson describing the fire on Mallacoota Community Radio.


FRANCESCA WINTERSON: Well, it's absolutely horrific at the moment. We have got blustering winds. We are surrounded by red sky, choking dust and choking smoke.

KELLY: Well, that is just one of countless dramatic stories to come out of this bushfire season, which is raging on with no relief in sight. With us now for an overview of the fire situation in Australia, where it is already New Year's Day, is a reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald - Laura Chung.

Laura Chung, welcome.

LAURA CHUNG: Hey, how are you going?

KELLY: I'm well. And I would start by wishing you Happy New Year. I guess I still will. But it sounds like it's quite a way to ring in 2020 there in Australia. Can you tell us just what the latest is?

CHUNG: Of course. A lot of residents in Mallacoota yesterday were faced with a really dark, black sky. As the morning progressed, it started to turn red. And we're seeing really alarming pictures of people bathed in this red light. So despite the efforts of firefighters, at about midday, the fire in the town continued to burn.

This town is a really popular place for holiday makers. So over summer, we see the population of about 1,000 people swell to 8,000 people. Many of these holiday makers tried to leave early. But it left about 4,000 to 5,000 people still in the town.

We're lucky that a wind direction has come through the town and moved the fire away from the town. But yeah, there are really breathtaking pictures of what that town faced yesterday.

KELLY: So it sounds as though - even though this is good news of a sort for Mallacoota, the winds have turned away there - that means the fire's headed in other directions and putting other communities at risk.

CHUNG: Exactly. And as with all fires, they generate their own weather systems. So while they might be safe now, it can easily change. It's a really volatile and fast-moving situation.

KELLY: And I should note, the overall death toll still stands at 12? Is that still accurate?


KELLY: You mentioned the population of a beach town swells in summer. It is, of course, summer right now in Australia, which means - even setting aside the fires, it is really hot. Is that contributing to the spread of the fires?

CHUNG: It's certainly not helping. Our landscape is very dry. I've been on the road covering the bushfires for the last two weeks or so. And no matter where you go, you can just see how dry it is, which is just creating this perfect fire fuel for these fires to rip through the areas.

KELLY: What's the situation where you are in Sydney? I know that there's always a huge New Year's Eve fireworks display, which I guess is a fire hazard. And that went ahead as planned?

CHUNG: That's correct. On Monday and Tuesday, we've seen several councils cancelled their various firework events. But the main Sydney Harbor fireworks that attract millions and millions of people from around the world and are televised everywhere went ahead. This attracted a lot of controversy from various people saying the fireworks should be cancelled because we've got these bushfires across the state. But the Rural Fire Service, which is the body in charge of looking after the fires at the moment, gave it the tick of approval. One thing that's really nice that's come out of the fireworks display is that firefighting fundraising efforts around the harbor raised about $1 million for firefighters.

KELLY: And does Australia have enough firefighters? Do you have enough resources to deal with this?

CHUNG: We certainly have a lot of volunteer firefighters who are incredible people. And then there are a lot of other firefighters who are paid members. But we are getting to a stage where we're just seeing people getting exhausted.

Because a lot of them are volunteers, they don't have the funds to keep volunteering their time. I spoke to one firefighter who had been on the ground for about 20 days. And he said he had $800 left in his bank account and had to rely on his elderly parents for some more funds.

The Prime Minister Scott Morrison has announced that there will be about $6,000 available to volunteer firefighters who have given up their time and volunteered for about 10 days. But as this is a, you know, quite a new announcement, we don't really know when the volunteer firefighters will start to see this money. And it's just going to be, you know, a kind of rolling situation.

KELLY: Laura Chung, thanks so much.

CHUNG: Thank you for having me.

KELLY: She is a reporter at The Sydney Morning Herald. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.