Asia Pacific

Australian fires destroy island national park; Morrison calls up reservists, delays trip to India and Japan

AFP-JIJI, AP, Reuters

Two people have died and a national park has been almost totally destroyed on Australia’s tourist haven of Kangaroo Island, authorities said Saturday.

Devastating conditions overnight helped flames rip through the island’s Flinders Chase National Park and threaten more heavily populated areas of the island.

Two people were killed when flames overran their vehicle near the town of Parndana, police said. They have yet to be identified.

Fires began on Kangaroo Island — off the coast southwest of Adelaide — on Dec. 20 and have now burned over 1,000 square kilometers (386 square miles).

“This has taken out much of the Flinders-Chase National Park,” including building infrastructure, said South Australia Premier Steven Marshall. “There will be very significant wildlife losses on the island.”

The national park is home to kangaroos, koalas and echidnas.

Bush-fire warnings were in place for more than half the island. Four cruise ship tours that planned to dock had been canceled. The fires burned so intensely that the airfield used by aerial water bombers had to be evacuated.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison called up about 3,000 reservists on Saturday as the threat of wildfires escalated in at least three states. Strong winds and high temperatures were forecast to bring flames to populated areas including the suburbs of Sydney.

Defence Minister Linda Reynolds said this was the first time that reservists have been called out “in this way in living memory — and, in fact, I believe for the first time in our nation’s history.”

Morrison said 23 deaths had been confirmed so far this summer, including the two on Kangaroo Island.

He also confirmed that his scheduled visits to India and Japan later this month have been postponed.

Morrison said he had spoken to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Japan’s ambassador to Australia, Reiichiro Takahashi, seeking to reschedule the meetings so he could tackle the country’s growing fire crisis.

“I should stress that both of those scheduled meetings are postponed and will move quickly to identify another opportunity,” Morrison told reporters.

Morrison had been set to leave for India on Jan. 12, followed by a trip to Japan, with talks due to focus on defense, intelligence and security and trade issues.

The decision to postpone the trips came after Morrison faced heavy criticism in December for taking a family vacation to Hawaii while fires burned. He cut the family trip short and apologized.

More than 130 fires were burning in New South Wales and at least half of those were out of control. A total of 48 fires were burning across 320,000 hectares (791,000 acres) in Victoria state.

“We still have those dynamic and dangerous conditions, the low humidity, the strong winds and, what underpins that, the state is tinder dry,” Victoria Emergency Services Commissioner Andrew Crisp said.

The New South Wales Rural Fire Service warned that a fire on the coast was generating its own weather system 290 km (180 miles) south of Sydney. “A fire-generated thunderstorm has formed over the Currowan fire on the northern edge of the fire near Nowra. This is a very dangerous situation,” the RFS said on social media.

An RFS firefighter was killed on Monday by a fire tornado caused by the collapse of a pyrocumulonimbus cloud formation that rolled over the fire truck he was in.

The early and devastating start to Australia’s summer wildfires has already burned about 5 million hectares (12.35 million acres) of land and destroyed more than 1,500 homes.