Thousands of climate protesters flooded the streets of Australian state capitals on Friday night as fire authorities warned of another dangerous night ahead in four states.
Firefighters in New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia continued to battle fires, with gusty winds expected to create hazardous firefighting conditions late into the night.
A male firefighter in his 20s suffered burns to his face, ears and hands in the Snowy Valley region where fierce winds were pushing the fires in different direction.
Temperatures reached above 40C in some parts of NSW during the day, and strong south-westerly winds with gusts of up to 90km/h were expected to move up the coast later in the night, the Bureau of Meteorology said.
“The change is critical,” the BoM’s Graham Reader said. “The winds really peak around the change and the directions shift is very sharp and particularly gusty.”
The change was not expected to reach Sydney until early on Saturday morning.
By 8pm on Friday, fire authorities in NSW and Victoria had started to issue emergency warnings as southerly winds fanned the fires.
In Victoria, 21 fires were burning out of control by late afternoon, with more than 1.3m hectares burned so far this bushfire season. On Friday afternoon the state’s premier, Daniel Andrews, said 286 residential properties had been damaged or destroyed in the state.
Andrews praised the response of Victorians to evacuation orders and other warnings.
“People have, by and large, followed the advice given, and that is one of the reasons why I’m able to say to you tonight, despite this unprecedented fire activity, we have nobody who is unaccounted for, we have no further people that have died, and we have no further communities that have been cut off.”
But he warned that “all of those things can change” and urged the public to remain vigilant.
People living in the state’s alpine region were told they had until 7.50pm on Friday to safely evacuate.
“Evacuation after this time is considered life threatening,” an emergency warning said. Relief centres were set up in Bonegilla, Myrtleford and Wangaratta for evacuees.
In the alpine towns of Bright and Harrietville, authorities had placed satellite phones, baby formula, food, nappies and torches in containers in case the two areas were cut off.
State authorities were concerned fires in the north of Victoria could merge with others burning near the NSW border.
In NSW, where 66 of the 137 fires burning were not contained, the Rural Fire Service warned the forecast wind change “could cause erratic fire behaviour over many firegrounds”. Conditions in several areas of the Snowy Mountains, and in the southern highlands around Bundanoon, were particularly challenging.
Conditions in the state were expected to ease on Saturday.
In Western Australia, a fire jumped one of the the main freeways south of Perth, threatening lives and homes just 30km south of the city centre. Residents were told to immediately head south if they could.
Fires in South Australia had burned through more than a third of Kangaroo Island, killing two people and injuring 22 fire personnel. The town of Parndana in the centre of the island was again spared on Friday after being threatened twice by flames.
In the evening more than 10,000 climate change protesters filled the streets in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Canberra, with anger directed towards the Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison.
Sydney protester Ambrose Hayes, 14, said people were “fed up” with Morrison, who she said was not acting on the climate crisis.
Morrison rejected criticism of his government’s climate record in a series of interviews on Thursday and Friday.
Conceding climate change had played a role in the fires, he told one radio station his government did not want “job-destroying, economy-destroying, economy-wrecking targets and goals” on climate change.
He said any such efforts to cut emissions “won’t change the fact that there have been bushfires or anything like that in Australia”.
In a conference call with MPs, Morrison banned backbench MPs from doing international media, after Liberal MP Craig Kelly caused an outcry by denying the link between climate change and bushfires on the UK’s Good Morning Britain show.
On Friday it emerged a senior News Corp employee had accused the company of “misinformation” and diverting attention from climate change during the bushfire crisis in an all-staff email addressed to the company’s executive chairman.
The email accused News Corp papers, including the Australian, the Daily Telegraph and the Herald Sun, of misrepresenting facts and spreading misinformation to focus on arson as the cause of the bushfires, rather than climate change.
The company defended its coverage and said the employee, Emily Townsend, had submitted her resignation in December.
The Bureau of Meteorology confirmed on Thursday that 2019 was the country’s hottest since records began in 1910. The year was also been the country’s driest since rainfall records began in 1900.
The bureau said 2019 had also been the worst year for the Forest Fire Danger Index – a metric used to assess the risk of dangerous bushfire weather. That record goes back to 1950.