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Tourist spots evacuated as wildfires hit SE Australia


THOUSANDS of holiday-makers have evacuated a popular tourist spot in south-east Australia as a heatwave and strong winds fuel wildfires sweeping through the region.

But with temperatures hitting 40 deg Celsius on Monday and blazes closing sections of the main highway, many more tourists and residents of East Gippsland are now unable to leave.

"It's a very serious, life-threatening situation," Bureau of Meteorology senior forecaster Kevin Parkyn told the ABC. Authorities warned that conditions in the forested coastal region are the worst since 2009 when the state's Black Saturday blazes left 180 people dead.

The emergency is the latest development in a wildfire crisis that has gripped Australia since blazes broke out months ago during the southern hemisphere winter amid a prolonged drought. The fires, which are affecting several states, have triggered an emotive debate about the impact of global warming in the world's driest inhabited continent.

At least 10 people have been killed and hundreds of homes destroyed, putting pressure on Prime Minister Scott Morrison's conservative government, which champions the coal industry and has dismissed calls to take more steps to curb emissions. The latest casualty was a volunteer firefighter who was battling a blaze in New South Wales, according to the Rural Fire Service in a tweet.

Authorities on Sunday urged some 30,000 tourists to immediately leave East Gippsland, an area about the size of New Jersey, before the weather deteriorated. While many heeded the advice, officials said there was no mass exodus as holiday-makers chose to remain in popular towns such as Lakes Entrance, renowned for its inland waterways and pristine beaches.

Emergency warnings have been issued for eight fires in the region, about a four-hour drive east of the state capital Melbourne. Some of the fires are so large, they are generating their own weather systems and triggering dry thunderstorms, according to the Bureau of Meteorology. An emergency warning was also issued for suburbs just 15 km north of central Melbourne, where a bushfire was moving through parkland and threatening homes.

A severe heatwave is spreading across the country. Parts of western Sydney are expected to reach 44 deg Celsius by Tuesday, according to the Bureau of Meteorology.

Sydney's New Year's Eve fireworks celebrations, which draw tens of thousands of tourists to the city for the harbourside spectacle, will go ahead regardless. The city council has rejected a petition calling for the display to be scrapped and the money to be donated to bushfire and drought relief projects, saying that the event is watched by millions of people worldwide and generates A$130 million (S$122.7 million) for the local economy.

Still, the evening's fireworks display in national capital Canberra has been cancelled due to a total fire ban there. An annual music festival in Lorne on Victoria's Great Ocean Road has been cancelled due to extreme fire conditions and about 9,000 festival-goers have been told to pack up and leave. Parts of South Australia faced catastrophic fire conditions on Monday, the highest rating on the state's danger scale.

New South Wales has borne the brunt of the fires, which have burnt out more than six million acres of forest and bush land and destroyed the habitat of native animals such as koalas. Images of the marsupials drinking water from bottles after being rescued have gone viral on social media in recent days.

About 100 bush and grass fires were burning across the state on Monday. A giant blaze north-west of Sydney, known as the Gospers Mountain fire, has destroyed more than 500,000 ha - an area about seven times the size of Singapore.

Another massive blaze, the Currowan fire, has played havoc with holiday-makers along the coast south of Sydney, threatening tourist towns and forcing authorities to intermittently close the main highway. The fire stretches about 96.5 km from Nowra to the resort town of Batemans Bay and has destroyed about 214,483 ha. BLOOMBERG