SYDNEY (Reuters) – Fourteen bushfires burning across southern Australia have killed two people, thousands of animals, and destroyed 16 homes, and authorities on Thursday said they feared the toll could rise.
The fires, which stretch across 210 kms (130 miles), broke out on Wednesday in heatwave conditions and quickly burnt across farmlands, forcing residents to flee and others to frantically try and save their homes and livestock.
“It was just the intensity of the fire and the speed. We tried to put it out. You just couldn’t put it out,” farmer John Lush told Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
“We’ve got a big machinery shed…and the (roof) gutters of that are 25 feet (eight metres) off the ground and the flames were coming over the top of that shed, so it was just horrific,” said Lush.
A 56-year-old woman and a 69-year-old man died in separate fires. Thirteen people are being treated in hospital and three people are missing, said South Australia State Premier Jay Weatherill.
“Five of those are either a in critical or serious condition with significant burns. We know that one of those persons has burns to more than 80 percent on their body,” said Weatherill.
“We hold grave fears for many more (and) can’t be entirely sure we have identified every single person in the fire ground,” he said.
Four people were killed in a series of wildfires sparked by lightning in Western Australia state last week.
Wildfires are an annual summer event in Australia, but rising temperatures have prompted some scientists to warn that climate change could increase the length and intensity of the summer fire season. The Australian Bureau of Meteorology declared October the hottest month on record.
While residents who escaped the fires described their desperate attempts to save their homes, one absent homeowner 3,000 kms (1,890 miles) north in the city of Darwin used a smartphone to activate his irrigation system to save his house.
“It’s come up all around the house but my ability to turn on irrigation systems from my phone in Darwin and the fact that I had neighbours patrolling with fire units, I think we’re lucky we got away with a house,” Simon Maddocks told Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
Maddocks’ 40 hectare (99 acre) wheat farm on the outskirts of the town of Hamley Bridge was completely burnt out.
Damage reports suggest more than 85,000 hectares of farmland and bush have been burnt by the fires, Weatherill said, with a significant livestock lost, including more than 2,000 pigs.
Four hundred extra firefighters were due to arrive from interstate on Thursday to battle the blazes.