SYDNEY – Authorities in Canberra on Friday declared the first state of emergency in almost two decades as a bush fire bore down on the Australian capital.
The chief minister of the Australian Capital Territory, Andrew Barr, said the measure was “effective now and will be in place for as long as Canberra is at risk.”
The measures come ahead of heat-wave conditions expected over the coming days and as forecasts predicted fires could hit southern suburbs of the city of about 400,000.
“This fire may become very unpredictable. It may become uncontrollable,” Barr told reporters in a televised briefing. “The combination of extreme heat, wind, and a dry landscape will place suburbs in Canberra’s south at risk.”
He added: “A state of emergency is the strongest signal we can send to the ACT community that they must prepare themselves and their families.”
Australia’s federal Parliament is located in Canberra, which is also home to several government and independent institutions as well as national museums.
Authorities also warned of so-called ember attacks, in which winds blow glowing ash ahead of the fire front.
It is the first time that a state of emergency has been declared in the Australian Capital Territory since 2003, when fires destroyed almost 500 homes and four people died.
The main threat comes from the Orroral Valley fire, which has burned around 18,000 hectares (45,000 acres) of mostly remote bush land.
Temperatures reached above 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) on Thursday in South Australia state, where fire weather warnings were issued in several areas.
The heat wave was expected to hit Melbourne and Canberra before parts of Sydney reach 45 degrees Celsius over the weekend.
Authorities say the searing heat, accompanied by dry winds, would bring severe fire conditions to parts of New South Wales and Victoria — where more than 80 fires are still burning across the two states.
Storms are forecast to follow the heat wave, bringing rain that could help dampen fires but also the potential for wild weather, including flash flooding.
In neighboring New Zealand, where smoke from the Australian blazes has turned glaciers brown, firefighters were battling to contain around 25 fires that spread rapidly to cover around 100 hectares on the South Island. Heat-wave conditions were also forecast for much of the country over the weekend.
Extreme weather has battered parts of Australia in recent weeks, bringing giant hail, floods and landslides.
At least 33 people have died and vast swaths of the country have burned since September.
The monthslong crisis has sparked renewed calls for Australia’s conservative government to take immediate action on climate change, with street protests urging Morrison to reduce the country’s reliance on coal.
Scientists say the fire disaster was exacerbated by climate change, coming on the back of a crippling drought that turned forests into a tinderbox and allowed blazes to spread out of control quickly.