THOUSANDS of Australians fled their homes as wildfires raged across the south of the country yesterday, with firefighters struggling to contain the blazes fanned by strong winds.
Police have declared a major emergency and told residents that their lives are at risk.
South Australia’s fire chief said the blazes in the Adelaide Hills, north-east of the state capital, were the worst since the Ash Wednesday bushfires in 1983.
Those fires left 75 people dead and caused devastation across parts of Victoria and South Australia.
Dry conditions and temperatures in the upper 30Cs (100F) were causing headaches for those battling the blazes. Officials said it would likely take days to get the fires under control.
In the Adelaide Hills the flames had destroyed five homes and put hundreds of others at risk, fire service spokesman Daniel Hamilton said.
Residents of 19 communities had been asked to evacuate as a predicted shift in the winds prompted fears the flames could worsen.
Residents, many with personal items and pets in hand have been advised not to return home for several days because the fire, which is only 20 miles from central Adelaide, is not expected to be contained until early next week.
Dozens of dogs and cats were killed after fire destroyed a boarding kennels and cattery in the area.
The forecast was also calling for increased humidity, which could slow the fire’s progress Hamilton said.
Up to 2,000 firefighters were battling the blazes across the state from both the ground and the air, with more than a dozen aircraft dumping water on to the flames.
Four firefighters have suffered minor physical ailments, including dehydration and asthma, Hamilton said.
A shift in the weather yesterday was expected to bring light rain, wind and lightning to the area, which could exacerbate the blaze as the rain wouldn’t be enough to quell the flames, and the lightning could spark fresh fires.
“At the moment, we have a fire which is extremely dangerous and it is burning under extremely adverse conditions,” South Australia fire chief Greg Nettleton was quoted as saying.
“Right at this moment, residents in the Adelaide Hills are being confronted by a fire which hasn’t been seen in the hills since the 1983 bushfires of Ash Wednesday,” Nettleton added.
In the neighbouring state of Victoria, firefighters have controlled more than 300 fires since Friday, with only one still considered a danger.
Crews have also been battling bushfires, with emergency alerts issued for Hastings, Bittern, and Crib Point south of Melbourne.
“Leaving now is the safest option, before conditions become too dangerous,” the area’s country fire authority said.
South Australia premier Jay Weatherill urged residents in the areas at risk to leave immediately or prepare to stay and defend their homes.
“If you have decided to stay the fire could become incredibly scary and it could make you change your mind and leave. It could be a catastrophic decision to leave late.”
Australia faces this type of fire every year, but environmentalists say global warning is making the occurrence of them more frequent.
The Australian Bureau of Meteorology says the country experienced its hottest year on record in 2013.
The 1983 Ash Wednesday disaster killed more than 70 people in South Australia and Victoria and destroyed thousands of homes and buildings.
In 2009, the devastating Black Saturday wildfires killed 173 people and destroyed more than 2,000 homes in Victoria.