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Australia

MONUMENTAL THREAT: ‘Most dangerous bushfire week this nation’s seen’

Sam Clench

Our reporter on the ground, James Hall, reports that dozens of roads leading into Taree are littered with the charred remains of the fires that wreaked havoc in the region.

Smoke is still hissing and spewing over the NSW mid coast.

Huge stretches of the Pacific Highway are blackened on both sides where the blaze jumped it on Friday night.

Less than 15 kilometres south, roads around Rainbow Flat remain blocked by fallen trees and power lines, cutting access to burnt out farmhouses and razed sheds.

James captured these grim photos.

Sam Clench

Greens MP Adam Bandt has responded to this morning's broadside from Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack.

"Our hearts go out to you as we witness this unprecedented devastation," Mr Bandt told bushfire victims.

"But thoughts and prayers are not enough. We need science and action."

He then took aim directly at the government.

"They've done everything in their power to make these catastrophic fires more likely. When you cuddle coal in Canberra, the rest of the country burns."

Sam Clench

Dr Richard Thornton, chief executive of the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre, has reinforced the message from officials' that people in the path of the fires should evacuate.

"During a bushfire, the safest place to be is somewhere else," Dr Thornton said.

"Fires that are likely to occur under these conditions tomorrow – we would strongly advise everybody to consider whether they want to be near a fire on those days.

"It came out of Black Saturday, where what we found was, that in those conditions, it was almost impossible to adequately defend a house. It's not something that you should even be contemplating."

The Black Saturday fires, which devastated Victoria in February of 2009, killed 173 people and destroyed thousands of homes.

If the current classification system had been in place then, those fires would have been given a catastrophic rating.

That is the level of danger huge parts of NSW, including the Hunter, the Illawarra and greater Sydney, are facing tomorrow.

It's the first time the catastrophic rating has been used for Sydney.

At his press conference earlier, RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons outlined just how serious the catastrophic rating is.

"In catastrophic circumstances, you can expect the most extraordinary fire behaviour," he said.

"It is not without question that spotting activity can be well and truly over 20 kilometres ahead of the main fire front.

"Homes that are specifically designed and built to withstand bushfires are not done so for catastrophic conditions.

"Catastrophic conditions are where lives are lost. It's where people die. The risk is absolutely real.

"The volatility and the rapid spread of fire across the landscape – we are rarely able to do anything meaningful when it comes to suppression. Our entire focus goes on saving lives, focusing on lives first and foremost. Even all those other things – property and everything – becomes secondary.

"There is nothing built or designed to withstand the sorts of conditions that you can expect under catastrophic."

On Monday, NSW Emergency Services Minister David Elliott described the situation as "the most dangerous bushfire week this nation has ever seen".

Sam Clench

Here is further proof that our firefighters are all class.

Sam Clench

"What people need now is a little bit of sympathy, understanding and real assistance. They need help, they need shelter," Mr McCormack said.

"They don't need the ravings of some pure, enlightened and woke capital city greenies at this time when they're trying to save their homes. It is disgusting and I will call it out every time.

"It's not about cheap political point-scoring. Not the ravings of some greenie in his apartment in Melbourne, crying about how bad coal is."

It was a less than subtle shot at the Greens, and particularly MP Adam Bandt, for pointing the finger at the government's climate change policies.

But the Greens aren't alone in raising the issue. For example, Glenn Innes Mayor Carol Sparks spoke about climate change this morning.

"There is no doubt about it, we are suffering from the effects of climate change and global warning," Ms Sparks said.

"The trees are dying and they're so dry and volatile.

"We've got no water in our dams, no water in our rivers, no water in our creeks."

On Friday Ken Thompson, the former deputy commissioner of NSW Fire and Rescue, brought it up.

"Even though we are in the expected bushfire season for the state, the severity, intensity and number of fires burning in NSW right now is not normal," he said.

“We have fire seasons now starting in winter, and ending in the autumn – firefighters are working for longer, in more dangerous conditions. Climate-fuelled worsening bushfire danger is exposing these brave men and women to more physical and mental health risks.

“Our state and federal governments should be listening to scientists and firefighters, and reducing emissions to curb climate change and keep people safe."

And climate change activists heckled Prime Minister Scott Morrison as he received a briefing from firefighters in NSW yesterday.

ABC TV host Michael Rowland grilled NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian on the issue this morning. She wasn't keen to talk about it.

"There's no doubt the deep drought has contributed to the conditions we're seeing, but I certainly don't think it's appropriate to get into a political argument as to what the causes are at this stage," Ms Berejiklian said.

"It's not a political argument, I'm citing concerns of residents. I'm not bringing politics into this. These are residents saying climate change is causing this. What do you say to them?" Rowland interjected.

"Well there's no doubt that these extreme weather conditions have contributed to these fire conditions. Conditions we've not seen before," she replied.

"There's no doubt we're seeing hotter temperatures, longer summers, more extreme weather conditions. But our first and foremost priority is to keep people alive at this stage, to keep properties safe and to contain the fires."

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Sam Clench

There was a rather tense moment during Gladys Berejiklian's press conference with Shane Fitzsimmons a few moments ago.

A reporter confronted the NSW Premier with the accusation that her government cut funding to the Rural Fire Service. She punted the question to the Commissioner.

"Gosh, can I say, I will let the Commissioner answer that question because I'm worried about my response," Ms Berejiklian said.

"I don't me how many times we got to publicly address this. I have addressed this with various media outlets that have been fed this story," said Mr Fitzsimmons.

"It is rubbish. It is misinformation. It's been misrepresented and I think it's disgracefully been misrepresented here today in these sorts of circumstances.

"Not only has our budget not been cut, we are enjoying record budgets. We have got more money today than we have ever had before in the history of the organisation. We have got record funding in particular programs.

"We're the only jurisdiction in this country that's got a dedicated large air tanker with a budget impact of something like $26 million to make that possible.

"I just wish this story would stop floating around. It does nothing to serve the cause. We are in the business of instilling community confidence. All these red herrings do is detract from our efforts to instil confidence."

Sam Clench

You might be wondering what the difference between "extreme" and "catastrophic" fire danger actually is, given they both sound apocalyptic enough.

The distinction is actually extremely important. RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons addressed it during a press conference just now.

"In catastrophic circumstances, you can expect the most extraordinary fire behaviour," he said.

"It is not without question that spotting activity can be well and truly over 20 kilometres ahead of the main fire front.

"Homes that are specifically designed and built to withstand bushfires are not done so for catastrophic conditions.

"Catastrophic conditions are where lives are lost. It's where people die. The risk is absolutely real.

"The volatility and the rapid spread of fire across the landscape – we are rarely able to do anything meaningful when it comes to suppression. Our entire focus goes on saving lives, focusing on lives first and foremost. Even all those other things – property and everything – becomes secondary.

"There is nothing built or designed to withstand the sorts of conditions that you can expect under catastrophic."

That should give you a clearer and very stark idea of what New South Wales is facing tomorrow.

Sam Clench

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian has declared a state of emergency ahead of tomorrow's "catastrophic" conditions.

She took that step in response to a request from RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons last night.

"Our state has already been hit by some of the most devastating bushfires we have ever seen, with three lives lost and more than 150 structures destroyed," Ms Berejiklian said.

"With catastrophic weather conditions predicted for this week, particularly Tuesday with hot weather and strong winds, I have decided to take the Commissioner's advice and make this declaration.

"It will ensure the state is best placed to respond to the predicted fire conditions."

The last state of emergency in NSW was back in October of 2013. In effect, the measure transfers powers from the state government to the RFS Commissioner.

Mr Fitzsimmons will have the power to directly control and coordinate the allocation of government resources, close roads and thoroughfares to traffic, pull down or shore up infrastructure, and enter or take possession of property.

The declaration is valid for a period of seven days, starting today.

Queensland has already declared a state of emergency across 42 local areas.

Sam Clench

Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack has told ABC radio he finds it "galling" when people link bushfires to climate change.

"What people need now is a little bit of sympathy, understanding and real assistance. They need help, they need shelter," Mr McCormack said this morning.

"They don't need the ravings of some pure, enlightened and woke capital city greenies at this time when they're trying to save their homes. It is disgusting and I will call it out every time.

"It's not about cheap political point-scoring. Not the ravings of some greenie in his apartment in Melbourne, crying about how bad coal is."

Greens MP Adam Bandt has perhaps been the most vocal person raising climate change policy in recent days, but he's far from alone.

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"What really galled me is that he blamed Scott Morrison and the government for the loss of those lives.

"We've had fires in Australia since time began."

“This is despicable,” he said.

“People who are at risk of losing their homes or people have already lost their homes or pets, indeed lost family members, don’t need to hear politicians coming out and starting to play the same game.

“The fact is, the government does take climate change very seriously. The fact is we are meeting our international obligations and will continue to do so.

“Australians get through these because we are a resilient bunch. We stick together, we band together, we make sure that we help those in need and comments coming from a little Melbourne apartment from a little individual with a little mind should not be accepted or tolerated at this time.”

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian, a Liberal, also slapped down questions about climate change, saying it was not the right time to discuss the subject.

"Not today. Not tomorrow. Not for the next few weeks," she said.

Nationals frontbencher David Littleproud backed up his leader today, saying the conversation about climate change should happen "in the cold, hard light of day after the event".

Sam Clench

Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons spoke to Channel 9 this morning. He reiterated his warning to residents who could find themselves in the fires' path.

"People need to have a plan. They need to be understanding and accepting of tomorrow's risk, absolutely. They need to be knowing what they are going to do, where they are going to go," he said.

"Under catastrophic conditions, the safest option is to leave and leave early, and not be in at-risk areas.

"If you can't leave tonight, leaving early in the morning is clearly your safest option under catastrophic conditions."

This comes after his blunt message yesterday that the fire service "simply cannot" send a fire truck or firefighters to every home, due to the scale of the crisis.

"We will not and cannot guarantee a fire truck or aircraft at anyone's house. We cannot guarantee a knock at the door or an emergency alert coming through your phone. People need to be vigilant," Mr Fitzsimmons repeated today.

He said there was "every likelihood" that a number of the fires currently classified at the "watch and act" level will escalate to emergency level throughout the day.

"We have seen the deadly results of these fires in recent days and so far this season, we have seen the lives of five people claimed as a result of these aggressive bushfires. Everyone is tired," he said.

"Everyone is fatigued, but we know they will step up ahead of what is coming over the next 24 hours. The risk is real. We have seen the devastation already and we are shaping up to face conditions worse than what we have seen already here in NSW this season.

"We can't overstate how real the potential danger is as we head into tomorrow."

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