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Australia fears Saturday will be the worst day yet.
Hundreds of people who had spent days trapped by fires along a beach in the town of Mallacoota reached safety more than 300 miles away on Saturday morning, after a 20-hour trip on a naval ship.
Others had stayed behind, even as Australian officials across three states urged anyone who could leave to do so. By Saturday, numerous towns along Australia’s eastern and southeastern coasts were ringed by fire.
This is already one of the worst wildfire seasons Australia has ever endured, and by all measures, Saturday was expected to be even more extreme. High winds and temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit were likely to exacerbate fires already raging out of control. Officials in the state of New South Wales said they expected to lose more houses over the weekend.
The toll so far: 23 deaths, more than 1,300 homes destroyed, countless animals killed and tens of thousands of acres of national park and forest land burned.
Thousands of reservists will pitch in, Scott Morrison says.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced on Saturday that 3,000 reservists from the Australian military would be called up to help with the firefighting efforts. Defense Minister Linda Reynolds said it was the first such order that she could remember. Reservists who are fighting to save their own homes from the fires will be exempt, she said.
The government is also deploying another naval ship to help with evacuations. Chinook and other military aircraft will be dispatched to help firefighters, and the military will open some of its bases for emergency accommodation. Mr. Morrison said $14 million would be spent to hire four more water bombing planes.
The prime minister has been criticized by many Australians for his handling of the disaster. He was heckled when he visited the fire-stricken community of Cobargo in New South Wales on Thursday.
Scorching temperatures arrive on schedule.
The extreme heat that officials have been warning about came to pass on Saturday, with some fire-stricken areas seeing temperatures around 100 Fahrenheit (38 Celsius), according to Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology. The agency warned that the danger of more fires along the southeast coast was comparable to New Year’s Eve, when some of the worst recent devastation occurred.
The hottest place in the country on Saturday was the western Sydney suburb of Penrith, which recorded a high of about 118 degrees.
Officials said one major fire had crossed from the state of Victoria north into New South Wales and was spreading quickly. Fire-generated thunderstorms — whose winds can make fire conditions even worse — have appeared over blazes in two different places, the New South Wales fire service said. Emergency workers were using cranes and air tankers to fight the fires, as winds moving up the coast were causing some of the blazes to merge.
NASA has been monitoring the fires, too. The American space agency posted these satellite images, which contrast the smoke-shrouded Australian coastline on New Year’s Day with the same view through clear winter skies in July.
It’s an ecological Armageddon for Australia’s unique wildlife.
About 87 percent of Australia’s wildlife is endemic to the country, which means it can only be found on this island continent, and a great many of those species have populations living in the regions now being obliterated by the fires.
Ecologists at the University of Sydney have estimated that this year’s fire season have either killed or badly injured 480 million animals, including birds, mammals and reptiles. That number doesn’t include insects, frogs or bats.
By any measure, the fires have been devastating, not only for the koala, which ecologists believe has lost a quarter of its population in northern New South Wales, but also for the lesser-known and just as unique southern brown bandicoot and the long-footed potoroo. The entire distribution of the potoroo, a kind of wallaby, is on the south coast, the very area being eaten up by flames.
Because the fires this season have been so intense and consumed wetlands as well as dry eucalyptus forests, there are few places many of these animals could seek refuge, said Jim Radford, a research fellow at La Trobe University in Melbourne. “We’ve never seen fires like this, not to this extent, not all at once, and the reservoir of animals that could come and repopulate the areas, they may not be there,” he said.
Seal and penguin colonies on Kangaroo Island are at risk from uncontrolled fires. Fish and frogs where ash has blanketed waterways may not survive. And it will take a decade for certain trees to produce the nectar so many fruit bats and flying foxes (another variety of bat) rely on.
“Small populations might have been wiped out entirely,” Dr. Radford said. “It really is an ecological Armageddon.”
Weary but thankful, fire evacuees reach a safer shore.
After 20 hours aboard the MV Sycamore, the naval ship that rescued her from the fire-ravaged town of Mallacoota on Australia’s southeastern coast, all Darcy Brown wanted was to take a shower.
Ms. Brown, 16, and her family had only recently moved to Mallacoota when, on New Year’s Eve, fire that turned the sky “red one minute” and “black the next” tore through the town, razing their new home (and making Ms. Brown’s asthma even worse). Many people fled to the shore, where they camped on the beach or slept in boats.
It was “devastating,” Ms. Brown said on Saturday morning in Somerville, where she and dozens of others had been taken by the Australian Navy after landing at the nearby port of Hastings.
Ms. Brown and other evacuees said they were weary but thankful to be safely ashore. People streamed off buses, some carrying just a few belongings, others with dogs on leashes. One man stepped off a bus, embraced a woman who had come to meet him, and sobbed.
About 1,100 more people were expected to arrive from Mallacoota on a larger vessel, the landing ship Choules, later Saturday.
Some stay behind: ‘I feel like I’m safe right here.’
Not everyone obeyed the evacuation orders, and for many of those people, officials say it is now too late to leave. “Seek shelter as the fire approaches,” the Rural Fire Service of New South Wales warned people in or near the communities of Peak View, Numeralla and Countegany on Saturday.
Rob Rogers, deputy commissioner for the Rural Fire Service, had issued a grim warning on Friday: If you choose to stay, don’t expect help.
“We’ve been very honest about the risk, but if people choose to stay, that’s on them,” he said at a news briefing. “Do not expect there to be a fire truck when you ring.”
David Rowland, of Batemans Bay, is among those staying put. He has already felt the heat of the fires once, as he secured a storage shed filled with personal belongings on New Year’s Eve.
“The fire got louder and louder and louder, and then the main smoke came and it went dark in the middle of the day,” he said. “Aside from the huge red glow from the fire, everything was dark, and it feels like the air itself is going to combust.” He drove away as fast as he could.
He said Batemans Bay was like a ghost town now that the tourists had left. But the power was back on, and he said he had enough supplies to see out the fires. He intends to spend Saturday night on his boat.
“I have the sea here,” he said. “There’s no way in the world I’ll drive anywhere. I feel like I’m safe right here.”
Orignially published in NYT.