Australia’s leaders have been criticised for failing to borrow firefighting planes from the US and Europe to battle the wildfires blazing out of control across swathes of the country.
Thousands of people swarmed to beaches on Australia’s east coast to escape fierce wildfires in apocalyptic conditions threatening seaside towns, as the government prepared naval vessels and military helicopters to aid firefighting and evacuations.
But high winds along the eastern coast were said to be hampering efforts to use aircraft to dampen the flames.
As the New Year arrived, more than 200 fires were burning across the southeastern states of New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria, prompting emergency warnings. Some 68 blazes were not contained, according to the rural fire service.
Jon Dee, founder of environmental charity Planet Ark, said the US Forest Service had eight firefighting planes available on 24 hours’ notice but the Australian government had not asked to borrow them. “Why are we not using these planes in the current bushfire crisis?” he tweeted.
The Independent has contacted Australia’s department of the prime minister and cabinet, and the department for home affairs, for comment.
NSW fire and rescue commissioner Greg Mullins said $11m (£5.8m) provided by the federal government to boost aerial firefighting earlier this month was “smoke and mirrors” and “too little too late”.
He also claimed dozens of aircraft were mothballed in the northern hemisphere that could be available “in a week”, the Sydney Morning Herald reported.
“What I and 29 other former chiefs are saying is that with longer and overlapping fire seasons it is just very clear that we are going to run out of large aircraft,” he said.
“They should be looking at these scooping aircraft because Croatia, Italy, France, Portugal and Canada have all got them, and they are all in mothballs in winter. There are dozens of them and they are cheaper than jets.
“If they [the government] wanted to make an impact, just about every state and territory could have a couple of them if the government kicked the tin.
“They could get on to the Canadian government and I am sure they would be here in a week. They’d have as many as we want.”
He said some of the 100 Blue Mountains homes destroyed by bushfire could have been spared with greater aerial support.
However, in a sharp escalation in assistance, a day later the military sent air and sea reinforcements. Victoria state premier Daniel Andrews requested assistance from 70 firefighters from the US and Canada, and heavy-lifting helicopters headed to areas facing the greatest threat.
Mr Andrews said there were grave fears for four missing people. “We can’t confirm their whereabouts,” he said.
Two navy ships are also being sent to the region ready to evacuate hundreds of homes.
New Year’s Eve became the deadliest day of the state’s worst bushfire season on record when two men were killed trying to protect their home, bringing the death tally to 11 since the fires started in September.
The Australian Bureau of Meteorology issued a strong wind warning for Coffs Coast and Macquarie Coast, north of Sydney, warning revellers near the harbour to take care. The Herald said the winds had made it difficult to use aircraft to battle the many fires.
About 12.35 million acres of land have burnt nationwide since September, with more than 1,000 homes destroyed.
Some communities cancelled New Year fireworks celebrations, but Sydney’s popular display went ahead in front of more than a million people, despite the objections of some who said the cost was too high given the flames devastating parts of the country.
Stranded residents and holidaymakers were reported to be sleeping in cars on New Year’s Eve, while petrol stations and surfing clubs were transformed into evacuation centres.
Australia’s largest collection of primates, as well as giraffes, zebras and rhinos were saved as fire threatened a wildlife park. Zookeepers worked for hours to save Mogo Wildlife Park in the Batemans Bay area.
The crisis has reignited debate about whether prime minister Scott Morrison’s government has taken enough action on climate change. Australia is the world’s largest exporter of coal and liquefied natural gas.
Mr Morrison has repeatedly issued public thanks to firefighters and authorised extra payments to volunteer firefighters.
Defence minister Linda Reynolds said she had authorised three helicopters and an aircraft for Victoria, and two naval vessels to go to East Gippsland in Victoria.
“A joint task force has been stood up with army personnel and liaison officers,” she added.
Additional reporting by agencies