Australia's most populous state declared a state of emergency Monday as dozens of fires ravaged the countryside with authorities warning of “catastrophic” fire risk — the highest level of bush fire danger.
David Elliott, emergency services minister for New South Wales state, said residents were facing what "could be the most dangerous bush fire week this nation has ever seen,” the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported.
Three people have died in the fires that destroyed more than 150 homes since Friday, according to state police and fire officials.
The blazes were so bad that smoke and dust from them had traveled across the Tasman Sea and turned neighboring New Zealand's skies red, the country's media reported.
Residents of Sydney, one of Australia’s largest cities, as well as Hunter Valley and Illawarra regions and the city of Shoalhaven have been told to brace for "catastrophic" fire danger Tuesday, with severe and extreme danger across large areas of the state Tuesday.
New South Wales Rural Fire Service said Sunday that “catastrophic” is the highest level of bush fire danger.
The catastrophic rating “is as bad as it gets,'' an RFS spokesman was quoted as saying by Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald newspaper.
Premier Gladys Berejiklian said declaring a state of emergency was a precautionary measure to ensure “everyone is as safe as possible.”
“For heaven's sake, stay away from bushland tomorrow,” she told reporters in a press conference Monday, asking residents to heed advice from emergency services. “You might think you are OK and a few minutes later you won’t be."
New South Wales Police said Monday that some fires may start and spread so quickly there may be little time to get out.
“There are simply not enough fire trucks for every house," it said in a statement. "If you call for help, you may not get it."
The New South Wales Rural Fire Service said the state of emergency will remain in place for seven days.
As of Sunday, it said 64 bush and grass fires were burning across the state, 40 of which were still not contained.
The New South Wales Ambulance Service warned Sunday that “even healthy adults and children can be impacted by the effects of heavy smoke which can result in lung irritation.”
Around 500 schools will be closed across the state because of the fire risk, ABC reported.
Further north in Queensland, more than 50 fires were burning Sunday, with emergency warnings in place for two fires.
The ravaging fires have reignited the debate on whether Australia has taken enough action on climate change.
The leader of the Australian Greens party, Richard Di Natale, and the party's climate spokesman, Adam Bandt, blamed Prime Minister Scott Morrison's government for the crisis.
"The PM does not have the climate emergency under control," he said on Twitter.
Morrison said Saturday that he had not considered whether the unprecedented fires scorching New South Wales and neighboring Queensland state were linked to climate change, according to The Associated Press.
Morrison's deputy, Michael McCormack, said Monday that now was not the time for political debate on climate change.
"What people need now is a little bit of sensitivity, understanding and real assistance. They need help; they need shelter," McCormack said.