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Firefighters work on a controlled burn in Koorainghat, New South Wales state, Australia on Nov. 11, 2019.

The Associated Press

Ferocious wildfires were burning at emergency-level intensity across Australia’s most populous state and into Sydney’s suburbs Tuesday as authorities warned most people in their paths that there was no longer time to flee.

New South Wales is under a weeklong state of emergency, a declaration that gives the state’s Rural Fire Service sweeping powers to control resources and direct other government agencies in its efforts to battle fires. The worst fires on Tuesday emerged in the state’s northeast, where three people have died and more than 150 homes have been destroyed since Friday.

A catastrophic fire warning was in place for Sydney, Australia’s largest city, where a large blaze threatened homes Tuesday afternoon in northern suburban Turramurra, 17 kilometres from the city’s downtown area.

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A firefighter suffered a fractured arm and ribs before the fire was rapidly contained with the aid of a jet dumping fire retardant and a helicopter dropping water, officials said. Turramurra residents reported trees catching fire in their backyards from embers.

Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said many people had heeded his warning and evacuated their homes in the danger zone well ahead of the escalating fire threat Tuesday.

“We’ve got very tight, winding roads into a lot of these areas, which is why we talked about leaving early as the safest option,” Commissioner Fitzsimmons told reporters.

“The last thing we want to do is be managing mass evacuations in pretty difficult-to-access areas and running the risk of having a whole bunch of congested roadways and seeing people incinerated in their cars,” he added.

Of 85 fires burning across New South Wales, 14 were rated as emergencies and burning out of control by late afternoon, the Rural Fire Service said. That’s the largest number across the state in decades apart from Friday, when an unprecedented 17 emergency fires blazed.

Lyn and Peter Iverson watch their burnt out office and shed on their property following a bushfire at Half Chain road, Koorainghat, New South Wales state on Nov. 11, 2019.

The Associated Press

“It is too late to leave on most of these fires and sheltering is now your only option as fire approaches,” Commissioner Fitzsimmons said.

Kirby Ardis took Commissioner Fitzsimmons’s advice, driving her family from their home in the small town of Deepwater 42 km south to the larger centre of Glen Innes at about midday Tuesday.

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“With the winds, the embers are travelling many kilometres, so it’s just not worth it,” she said. “The general consensus is that people are just evacuating. Better safe than sorry.”

Alison Johnson said she’d stay as long as she could in the village of Nana Glen to protect her business, the Idle Inn Cafe, from embers that can carry 30 kilometres ahead of the fire front.

“If one ember lands on it, it’ll go up,” Ms. Johnson said. “When you look above the paddock at the end of the street, you can see the smoke behind the tree line.”

“The trees are a muted gray, shrouded in smoke. The first sign of a fire front and we’ll be out,” she added.

Winds were reaching 80 km/h in some areas and were expected to gather pace as the day progresses. There were reports of potential destruction of homes south of the town of Taree, near where a 63-year-old woman died in her home Friday, Commissioner Fitzsimmons said.

Jamie Fato prepares to stop an out of control fire entering Owen Whalan's property at Koorainghat, near Taree, New South Wales state, on Nov. 12, 2019.

The Associated Press

A “small number of properties” appeared to have been destroyed or damaged by late Tuesday, he said.

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More than 600 schools and technical colleges were closed because they are close to woodlands at risk of fire.

The Australian fire season, which peaks during the Southern Hemisphere summer, has started early after an unusually warm and dry winter.

AUSTRALIA FIRES EXACERBATED

BY DROUGHT

After three years of drought in parts of Queensland and New South Wales, the current outbreak has also been fanned by an unprecedented combination of high temperatures and strong winds. Large swathes of the coast are at their driest in decades, compared with a historic average.

Root zone soil moisture

Percentiles (%) over 1911-2016 average

10

30

70

90

Extreme

Below

avg.

Normal

Above

avg.

Extreme

AUSTRALIA

Detail

Brisbane

Queensland

Toowoomba

EXTREMELY

DRY

Gold Coast

1

Large fires

MORE MOISTURE

THAN NORMAL

Tamworth

Port

Macquarie

New South

Wales

Newcastle

Sydney

2

Canberra

Wagga Wagga

Many of the large fires in New South Wales over the past week have occurred on extremely dry land.

1

Large areas of dry bushland

Authorities warn of “catastrophic fire danger.” Home to more than five million people, Sydney is ringed by large areas of bushland, much of which remains tinder dry following little rain across the country’s east coast in recent months.

2

SOURCE: REUTERS

AUSTRALIA FIRES EXACERBATED BY DROUGHT

After three years of drought in parts of Queensland and New South Wales, the current outbreak has also been fanned by an unprecedented combination of high temperatures and strong winds. Large swathes of the coast are at their driest in decades, compared with a historic average.

Root zone soil moisture

Percentiles (%) over 1911-2016 average

10

30

70

90

Extreme

Below

avg.

Normal

Above

avg.

Extreme

AUSTRALIA

Detail

Brisbane

Queensland

Toowoomba

EXTREMELY

DRY

Gold Coast

1

Large fires

MORE MOISTURE

THAN NORMAL

Tamworth

Port

Macquarie

New South

Wales

Newcastle

Sydney

2

Canberra

Wagga Wagga

Many of the large fires in New South Wales over the past week have occurred on extremely dry land.

1

Large areas of dry bushland

Authorities warn of “catastrophic fire danger.” Home to more than five million people, Sydney is ringed by large areas of bushland, much of which remains tinder dry following little rain across the country’s east coast in recent months.

2

SOURCE: REUTERS

AUSTRALIA FIRES EXACERBATED BY DROUGHT

After three years of drought in parts of Queensland and New South Wales, the current outbreak has also been fanned by an unprecedented combination of high temperatures and strong winds. Large swathes of the coast are at their driest in decades, compared with a historic average.

Root zone soil moisture

Percentiles (%) over 1911-2016 average

10

30

70

90

Extreme

Below

avg.

Normal

Above

avg.

Extreme

AUSTRALIA

Detail

Queensland

Toowoomba

Brisbane

EXTREMELY

DRY

Gold Coast

Many of the large fires in New South Wales over the past week have occurred on extremely dry land.

Large fires

MORE MOISTURE

THAN NORMAL

Tamworth

Port Macquarie

New South

Wales

Newcastle

Sydney

Large areas of dry bushland

Authorities warn of “catastrophic fire danger.” Home to more than five million people, Sydney is ringed by large areas of bushland, much of which remains tinder dry following little rain across the country’s east coast in recent months.

Canberra

Wagga Wagga

SOURCE: REUTERS

More than one million hectares of forest and farmland had already burned across the state this fire season, more than three times the 280,000 hectares that burned during all of last season.

The catastrophic fire warning is a first for Sydney. World Meteorological Organization spokeswoman Clare Nullis told reporters in Geneva that “catastrophic” was the top of the danger scale in Australia, and probably anywhere.

“The current fires are due to a combination of factors, including low soil moisture, heat and, importantly, wind direction and wind speed,” she said.

She cited figures from the Australian Bureau of Meteorology saying New South Wales had endured its driest 34-month period on record, and that Australia over all has faced its second-warmest January-to-October period based on records dating back 110 years.

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