State of emergency declared in Australia's capital Canberra amid fires

Published: Jan. 31, 2020 at 9:19 PM EST
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

January 31, 2020

Australia's capital region declared a state of emergency on Friday as a wildfire burns menacingly to its south. The declaration is the first state of emergency in the country's capital, Canberra, in over a decade.

The Australian Canberra Territory area, which includes the capital city, "is now facing the worst bushfire threat since the devastating fires of 2003," the territory's Chief Minister Andrew Barr said at a press conference Friday. "The combination of extreme heat, wind, and a dry landscape will place suburbs in Canberra's south at risk in the coming days."

Wildfires in the region in 2003 killed four people and destroyed almost 500 homes in a single day, The Associated Press reported.

This year's wildfire season across southern Australia has been unprecedented. The fires have claimed at least 33 lives since September, destroyed more than 3,000 homes, and burned more than 26.2 million acres, The Associated Press reported.

The fire in Australia's capital region started on January 27, according to The Canberra Times, after heat from a military helicopter landing sparked a blaze, The Associated Press reported. The blaze has so far burned more than 47,700 acres — nearly eight percent of the total land mass of the capital region.

By Wednesday afternoon, the fire was five times bigger than it was just 24 hours earlier, The Canberra Times reported. It is expected to grow even more on Friday and Saturday, according to authorities.

The new state of emergency will remain in place for "as long as Canberra is at risk," according to Barr.

"This fire may become very unpredictable, it may become uncontrollable," he said.

Under the state of emergency, Barr can appoint an Emergency Controller who is given extra powers to help manage the situation. ACT Emergency Services Commissioner Georgeina Whelan, who was appointed to the role, can now "direct or regulate the movement of people, animals or vehicles, take control of a person's property (when directed in writing), direct a person to give information, answer questions, or produce documents, or undertake necessary works on private property," according to the Australian Canberra Territory's government.

Barr said he made the decision to declare the state of emergency so Canberra residents had enough time to prepare for the weekend's blaze, as summer temperatures are expected to rise over the next few days.

"One of the many lessons from the 2003 Canberra bushfires was the need for early, clear, and effective communication with the community about the risks ahead," Barr said.

The fire is currently at "watch and act" level, meaning there is no immediate threat to property, but people are being advised to prepare an evacuation plan. Evacuation centers have been set up.

"We are set for a number of uncomfortable days," Barr said.